Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Fessing up! A tally of RocketMan's 2008 Predictions...

OK, it takes a big man to admit when he's wrong -- and an even bigger man to gloat about being right... or....something like that.

On this, the eve of the last day of a fairly weird year, let's take a quick trip back and see how I did for tech predictions for 2008...

  • The end of the RIAA Reign of Terror
    WIN. Rolling score +1

    Ironically, it wasn't all of us fighting against the RIAA that made them stop stalking single mothers, it was the economic downturn. Apparently, record labels have better things to do with their money then give it to thugs who sue hospitalized teens?. Who knew? Now they are going to turn to ISPs to "help stop piracy." Good luck with that, guys.

  • Massive adoption of non-DRM'ed digital music from the recording industry.
    WIN. Rolling score +2

    And, done. Turns out that people LIKE having the ability to move their digital music from machine to machine without restrictions... and that by removing digital rights management from digital music, people actually...and this is amazing... buy more music then they steal! Who knew? Oh, that's right... everyone else in the world except the record labels.

    BTW, personal Rocket-Fav? Amazon MP3 store. Just...wonderful.

  • The age of digital books begins in ernest.
    EH..call it a WIN. Rolling score: +3

    I can't really tell, but I'm taking the credit anyway.

    Sale figures for Amazon's Kindle are still hidden by Amazon, but there's indication that the sales have been at 400,000 through this Christmas season. Sales figures for Sony's eBook reader are estimated at 300,000 for the same time period. Now there are indications that eBook sales on the iPhone have added to the mix. So, those numbers total out at about +1M eBook capable devices in the field just between those three companies. (For comparison, iPod sales hit 1.3M within its first 2 years of operation.) In addition, audio book companies, like Audible, seem to be gaining traction.

    Despite Steve Jobs famous, and idiotic, comment that people don't read anymore, it seems that they do - they are just changing how they read. Newspapers are dying, but the content is moving to the web. Physical book sales are dropping, but people are getting their read on in other ways.

    For the record, I would never expect that eBook sales will keep pace with other forms of digital media, it's a different audience and consumption model, but I would expect the same ratio of readable media to audio/video media that has always existed...it will just move from the physical realm to the digital realm.

    RocketMan's personal fave? It's still the Sony eReader. Granted, I'm a Sony fanboy, but the design of the 505 eReader is just too sexy... plus it's smaller and ergonomically better - you don't accidently flip pages. The eReader store is getting larger by the day, and there's indications that Amazon will open up it's book content to other eBook manufactures...which makes sense - it just enlarges their content sales channel.


  • Fold-up, roll-up displays.
    LOSS. Rolling score: +3

    This one really bums me out - I was expecting to see more out of this technology, and it looked promising at the end of 2007. But, nadda. I'm assuming manufacturing costs coupled with the "are people turning to ebooks" angst has kept the funding low for for foldable displays.

    I think we need to put this one back in the oven for 1 more year.

  • GPS enabled, well, everything really
    WIN. Rolling score: +4

    Do you really need me to document this one? Hell, my fracking toothbrush has GPS now.

  • The mainstream emergence of "new media."
    EH...Jury is still out. Rolling score: +4


    Ok, something is happening - but I'm not sure you can call it a "mainstream emergence," yet. Jobs says idiotic things here too, in order to make himself feel better about the poor sales of the Apple iTV. (Which, honestly, is owing in part to the trademarked captive environment of the Apple ecosystem.) However, TV viewership is down, digital video downloads from all sources are up, Netflix and Blockbuster got into the set-top box game, movie theater ticket sales have remained crazy-constant over the past decade... so, who knows?

    Does granny have a set-top box streaming movies from Amazon yet? No. Are people moving to a completely digital realm? Yes.

    So, no - it's not "mainstream" yet -- but as long as "mainstream" means "people who have just figured out that a computer is more than just a porn machine," that answer will remain "no." However, that demographic is going to, in a very short time, wonder why there's nothing good on the telly anymore...its because the content channels have moved out from under them.

  • Verizon will pick up the 700Mhz spectrum.
    WIN. Running score: +5


    Yup, they got it. Now the real war starts: LTE, WiMax, 4G, or...something else?

  • Porn and Wal-Mart don't matter! (The HD-DVD/BluRay war)
    WIN. Running score: +6


    Jeez, this was over literally as I was writing the words last January. (Thank you Warner...or, rather, thank you Sony for paying off Warner.)

    Now the question is: will physical media remain relevant, and what will happen to Blu-Ray versus downloadable media? If the Blu-Ray OEMs don't take a loss leader with their hardware and start selling those boxes for sub-$100, then Blu-Ray's "win" will be a hollow victory
Ok, 6 out of 8. 75%. Not bad.

Nah, crap! I can do better. Let's see what I come up with for 2009 this weekend...



Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Anyone up for a game of Scrobble?

Unable to sleep tonight (what else is new), I started listening to some of my favorite tunes - and fiddling with Last.FM. I quickly hit the annoyance I always had - it's easy to scrobble from iTunes and the iPod, but those aren't my only music players. In fact, they aren't even my primary music players (the iPod relegated to my car only, and iTunes...well, I never listen to anything in iTunes)... so, how do I get music playing anywhere in my little world up and into Last.FM?

Note: for the purpose of this posting, I am leaving out all Last.FM specific applications which just stream Last.FM stations and reside on devices like the Nokia, the iPhone and laptops - and instead I am focusing just on plugins to existing native media playback applications. 'Cuz, I mean, who the hell actually listens through those little Last.FM streamers?

First, what's my music ecosystem these days? Well, as it should be, its a variety of devices and internet services:

That's quite a collection, but they all have different purposes in my life - the Zune for traveling and listening to my music collection, the Android for internet streaming, WMP and Banshee for when I am on my laptops, etc. Until recently, it was difficult to find applications to allow scrobbling on these devices.

In the last few months, however, a boatload of scrobblers has shown up out of nowhere. It's either a full moon, or I'm not the only one who was having these issues.

So, after a few hours tonight, I was able to pull together enough of these scrobblers to cover each and every media player in my ecosystem. (Again: skipping the iTunes/iPod and Windows Media player solutions, since these are easily provided via Last.FM itself.)

Zune / Zune Marketplace = Zenses
(Last.Fm Group: http://www.last.fm/group/Zenses)

This one was the trickiest to find, actually. The Zune and Zune Marketplace don't have a published API for plugins (jeez, of COURSE they don't), so Zune owners have been frustrated for years. Then along came Zenses, the open source brainchild of Last.FM junky Adam Livesley. Not a conventional scrobbling tool - in that it isn't a plugin - Zenses was originally written for the Creative Zen, which has the same issue as the Zune. As it turns out, the same trick it Zenses uses to work with the Creative Zen works with Zune Marketplace.

Zenses runs in the background of your Vista machine. When Zune Marketplace fires up and the Zune syncs its information with Marketplace, it changes the "last access" date field in the media files that were played - this change in state is detected by Zenses and registered as a hit suitable for scobbling, and reports it to Last.FM.

If you think about if for a minute, its the same trick that backup utilities use for determining that a file has changed and is ready for backup. If you think about it for 2 minutes, you also realize that in order for Zenses to work, it needs a "baseline" of file states to compare against. So the very first time you install and run Zenses, go and get lunch as it creates that baseline for your all your files. The good news is that it only needs to do this once, then it's scobble-as-usual from then on.

Sonos Music System - Sonos Upgrade 2.7
(Last.FM Group: http://www.last.fm/group/Sonos+Multi-Room+Music+System)

If you have a house, or even a multiroom condo or apartment, and you don't want to spend $100K on a whole house audio system that will be obsolete in a year, then you want a Sonos system. For about $500/room, Sonos will shuttle all of your digital music around (regardless of whether or not its on a hard drive, your Rhapsody account, Sirius satellite, local radio stations, Pandora, Napster, etc) , and even sync the room playbacks together.

This is how I listen to all of my music at home - so the fact that there was never a scrobbler for Sonos was incredibly frustrating to me. That changed with the release of Sonos 2.7 software late last month. Sonos 2.7 includes a Last.FM integration that is seamless: it not only scrobbles all your playbacks, but allows you access to your Last.FM account from the Sonos Controllers. Problem solved.

RadioParadise.com - The Radio Paradise Scrobbler
(Last.FM Group: none)

Based off of Markus Palme's scrobbler for a local radio station, Last.FMer RichPr built the Radio Paradise Scrobbler.

The use of the application is fairly simple: after installing it, you access radio paradise through the RP Scrobbler - which does the task of passing the stream off to Windows Media Player for playback of the stream, and recording the RP track changes and passing the information off to Last.FM as you go.

Easy-Peasy.

Banshee Media Player - Banshee Media Player
(Last.FM Group: http://www.last.fm/group/Banshee)

The Banshee Media Player is an all-inclusive media player for several flavors of Linux, including Ubuntu. Banshee takes the place of RhythmBox on Ubuntu, and indeed replaces all of that players features - and adds a few such as podcast catching and, of course, scrobbling. It's clean, easy and works like a champ.

Android G1 - ScrobbleDroid
(Last.FM Group: http://www.lastfm.com.br/forum/21716/_/474481/1#f7946498)

Lightweight and sporting a cutsey icon, ScrobbleDroid is available from the Android Market. It operates silently in the background listening to anything being played through the Android's default "Music" application and scrobbles it out to Last.FM. It works pretty flawlessly - to the point that you forget it is there at all.

The only complaint I have about it so far is that it does stick to parasiting itself on the Android music app... so, when I listen to RadioParadise through "AntPlayer" on the Android, nothing gets scrobbled. Well, the damn phone has only been out for a month and a half, I can cut it some slack, right?

Update: January 26th: At the end of last week, Last.FM released it's Android Last.FM application to the Android Market. It's a full-featured Last.FM client, complete with your profile information, stations, friends, neighbors and other Last.FM goodies. (The only thing missing, I think, is editing your profile.) Playing off of the Android Last.FM app automatically scrobbles your plays. A very sweet application. Nicely done.

Vista Media Center - MceFM (Last.FM Group: http://build.last.fm/item/335)

The MceFM plugin for Vista Media Center is both a Last.FM client streamer, and a scrobbler for the Vista Music Playback center. Providing an additional interface to the Music playback that allows for the Last.FM streaming, and if you just listen to your music normally, it scrobbles what you are listening to up to the mother ship.

Bonus extra-credit points: the freakin' thing works with the XBox360 in Media Extender Mode.


OK - that's not an exhaustive list, by any means, but it covers a lot of my personal ground...and, well, it's all about me, isn't it?

BTW, if you'd like, feel free to follow my listening exploits on Last.FM, since I scrobble now: http://www.last.fm/user/UberRocket



Friday, November 28, 2008

Ho-Ho-Ho from The Doctor...

...he's back, and not a moment too soon. TV needs the TARDIS...



Welcome back.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Reasons to Go Outside Get Fewer and Fewer. Seriously.


OK, this is something that deserves a bit more fanfare than it's receiving... Despite the Hollywood-ending-butchering (uh, sorry, "re-imagining") of Phillp K. Dick's short story, and despite the inclusion of Tom Cruise, who...well....is a crazy person, the 2002 film "Minority Report" was chock-a-block full of "just around the corner" predictions of advances in technology and social evolution.

None of the technology was impossible to imagine, and the societal impact that these advances predict are quite close at hand. From personal transport pods on individual tracks, fully robotic auto manufacturing facilities, advertising personalization gone horribly wrong, home videos with depth (which I am convinced was based of "depth-maps" we created at long-dead Synapix in the late 90's) and even the miracle of eye transplants reduced to the disturbing mundane reality usually equated with back-alley abortions - none of these future predictions grabbed the immediacy of the gesture-based operating system used by Cruise and his buds at the "Precrime" police facility in Washington DC. The science advisers and futurists working on the film tried to imagine a logical evolution of current operating systems based off current human interaction devices (uh, mice and motion capture suiots, people) and extended it to gestures of operators wearing special gloves with sensors in the fingertips.





To add the extra spark of "wow," the film depicts the interface projected not on giant flat screens (how Star Trek, pffft) but on large transparent plates hanging from the ceiling. The result is a visually stunning scene, that was the first realistic portrayal of a future operating system I have seen for quite some time.

Apparently, John Underkoffler at MIT thought so too, because he got together with some ex-Raytheon folks, moved to LA (and, somehow, Barcellona) and formed Oblong Industries. And Oblong's first achievement? A gesture based operating system (or Spacial Operating Environment, SOE, for you kids in the know) called g-speak. g-speak (no caps) is, for all intents and purposes, the same operating environment and workflow model that is depicted in the film.

Screw multi-touch iPhones and Microsoft Surface, for complete technolust and total mind-fuckage, check out this demo reel of g-speak in action....





Bringing hollywood-tech to life has happened time and time again, from the original bridge of the Enterprise being duplicated for modern aircraft carrier bridges, to human assistance exoskeletons that allowed Ripley to beat the crap out of Momma Bug in Aliens...but I haven't seen something so exactingly executed as g-speak before.

Just one request: please do not duplicate those freaking spider-robots, please. I have enough robo-phobia as it is, thank you.

....uh, oh crap.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Living with an Android

OK, I realize how pedestrian it is to write about a new gadget as that gadget is hitting the streets - and yet, while I normally leave that sort of activity to David Pogue (ha-ha, David. I kid. Really.), this is device worth a bit of mention.

For about 8 months now, I've been extremely happy with my little Nokia N82 - it not only passes the fits-in-jeans-front-pocket test with flying colors, but packs a wallop of a camera (5 megapixel) with geotargeting, easy access to Flickr, great web browsing, tons of seriously useful applications, etc... oh, and I haven't yet smashed this one against a curb. (Sorry, Sony Ericsson PL1, I really am.) So - why did I feel the need to replace it with something bigger, uglier and with a less powerful camera?

Well...not really need so much as curiosity. Being a gadget addict, heavily involved in the mobile industry, and sick to death of the smug satisfication of the iPhone fanboys and girls, the HTC Dream (dubbed the G1 by the T-Mobile marketing folks), the first ever Android phone, was way too compelling to just watch go to my guys' QA lab. I wanted...nay, needed... to live with one for a while. (Besides, T-Mo is offering a 30 day return policy in Cali, so I figured what the hell?)

Going into the T-Mobile store as an existing T-Mobile customer to pick up a G1 was a pretty simple affair. Interestingly, everyone in there was buying a G1, but still I was in and out in under a half an hour. (I spent the longest amount of time deciding between black or bronze. Really. I'm pathetic that way.) Hightailing it back to office, I stuck the SIM card in from my Nokia and fired it up.

From here, I could do one of those pro/con things, but I won't - that way, you'll be forced to read prose rather than bullet points. It's my little way of preserving the English language. Ahem...

The phone itself was a breeze to set up and get running - but, recall, I was already a T-Mobile customer, so take that into consideration. The apps were easy to locate in the Android Market (more on that in a bit), and the T-Mobile 3G network here in San Francisco is quite zippy. I was also delighted to see that my company's mobile web applications (we do mobile video distribution) ran on the G1 without modifications.

First issue hit: getting contacts, calendar and email aligned between this phone and my corporate and personal accounts. The Android platform, you see, doesn't have a native Exchange client - but rather uses the entire Google application suite. I anticipated that this would be a problem for me from the start, since I use Google apps only for my personal life, and not my corporate life. Enter Cemaphore Sytems, and their clever little application MailShadow. Whereas other Google-app-to-exchange sync'ing requires a bunch of crap set up between the corporate exchange server and Google, Cemaphore took a different approach: you already have an exchange client setup on your laptop for Outlook, so, uh, just use that. Sync'ing email, calendar and contacts only took a few minutes once it was set up properly. Voila, I'm running.

Now, because MailShadow requires your laptop running before sync'ing can take place, this wasn't a viable option for email in the long run (calendar and contacts - eh, I can wait until I boot the laptop, not so with email), I just configured the mail client on the G1 to IMAP into our corporate email. Done. Email, contacts and calendar sync'ed perfectly...

...well, almost perfectly. MailShadow doesn't allow for contact pictures to be transferred. But...I like my contact pictures...so, a few minutes hunting around the web revealed this little experiment in funness from Koushik Dutta on his blog My Brain Hurts (free plug there for you Mr. D.) on how to sync Google contacts with Facebook photos. After a quick godless prayer to hope that Mr. D's little app wasn't accidentally erasing my Google contacts, I ran his app and...pictures galore in Google contacts. Ok, now done.

Prediction: as more and more G1 owners run into this problem, MailShadow and Dutta's GoogleFacebookSync are going to become must-have items.

So, now that the phone's set up and I can actually live comfortably with it - how the hell is it?

On one hand, this is a very impressive phone. Is it the prettiest girl at the dance? No,its actually sort of an odd shape - slightly chubbier than its iPhone counterpart, but not that much chubbier. Most of the weight-gain is due to the sliding mechanism for the screen so that it can move out of the way to reveal: ta-da, a keyboard! (My one objection to the N82, and the sole remaining reason I will not purchase an iPhone, is lack of a real keyboard.)

The smattering of applications in the market (and I use the term "smattering" correctly), are almost all 100% useful - no light-saber apps here, just pure goodness. Plus, the lack of Apple iTunes Appstore-esque controls means, of course, apps don't even have to go through the Android Market. (Although it is more convenient for the user if they do.) There are a number of freeware and shareware sites already popping up for quick distribution of these applications. Check out http://www.android-freeware.org/ for several pages of examples of the types of apps you can get.

The most striking thing about the majority of the Android apps is how tightly intergrated they are with the machine's built-in GPS and aGPS systems... not just gratuitous "where's the nearest sushi restaurant" applications (although, believe me, there are plenty of those) but also very clever ideas realized. The app Locale, for instance, will allow you to set configuration properties of your phone based off of where you are currently located. Walking into the office and you don't want your Sex and the City ringtone to go off during a meeting? Locale will detect that you've entered your office building and put the phone in vibrate mode. Efficient, useful, clever and not gratuitous.

Now, the omissions on the G1 are just as striking as the cleverness of much of the phone. There is, for example, no support for A2DP in the firmware of the bluetooth radio, which means of course no bluetooth stereo headsets or speakers. Excuse me?? Really? You're trying to market one of the advantages of this device as being an audio and media player and you don't support A2DP out of the gate? Well, no problem, I'll just plug in my Shure headset and...hey...wtf? There's no jack for a headset? Yup, that's right. Just the goofy USB port on the bottom of the device. Oh sure, HTC sells a dongle that will allow you to plug in the headset, but...wtf?? One more little thingy to lose in the depths of my briefcase?

So, all told, do I think the G1 is going to make a dent in the iPhone onslaught? No, of course not - but, and this is the beauty of Google's Android ecosystem: it doesn't really matter. The very reason that Apple's desktop and laptop market share is so low is their closed ecosystem. They have to make the devices themselves, maintain the OS themselves, and compete against all the other PC makers out there. The result is higher prices and lower market penetration.

The same principle will apply to the Android-vs-iPhone frackus: it doesn't matter that HTC's G1 offering for T-Mobile is lacking A2DP or a headset port or that its, let's face it, kinda ugly. There are two dozen other OEMs in the Android Open Handset Alliance building their own handsets. One of them is going to get it very, very right.

...and that's when things will get very interesting.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Taking off the Rocket Helmet

First off, many apologies.

I went from 1 post a week to, uh, never since July. It's been a wild few months since Dabs passed, but I'm psyched to get back into the rocketship and talk about all the fun n' weird crap that's happened in tech and science since I last wrote.

Which brings us to my first blog post since my last one about my father: and, this one will also be self-indulgent. I've gotten a goofy number of emails along the lines of...

"...nice posts...but who the hell are you...?"
"...been reading...for awhile, you sound like I should know you..."
and, my personal favorite:
"...what the fuck...do you think Comcast is gonna sue you? They're busy!"
OK, fine. Fine. You're all right...it's time for the big reveal...

As you can see on my revamped "about me" section, my name is Rob DeMillo, and I've been in tech for a very long time. (Does dismantling the tube - and that's vacuum tube, not cathode-ray tube - TV at age 8 count?) I began my professional carrier in the public sector doing work for JPL, NASA, Lincoln Laboratory and the F.A.A, wandered through the world of 3D computer graphics when it was still young, and ended up a serial entrepreneur. Currently, I am the CTO and co-founder of a startup in California creating technology for delivering video and video advertising to mobile phones.

See, was that so hard? So, why all the mystery?

Well - anonymity breeds honest discourse. I've been around, know a lot of people, seen a lot of things in a lot of different industries and agencies...and, well, I write about them. Not always favorably...but, that's the way it goes, ya know?

So, I'm back in the rocket ship, and I'm gonna continue to write about what I see and hear around me - and reflect a bit on how what I'm currently observing may effect the course of the rocket, or of society...or how we're traveling over ground that we've already covered - but no one (chooses?) to remember. I'll keep being honest in my opinion, and if I accidentally (or otherwise) kick people and things I personally know, please feel free to kick back.

At least now you know how to get ahold of me...fair is fair, after all. See y'all next week for a new series of posts...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Dabs Lights the Rocket Fuse....

If you want to ignore this blog entry, you won't be held responsible - this is less my usual musings on science, tech and society then it is a self-induldgent reminiscing about the town of my birth. Hey, I'm allowed....

My father's death this week brought me back to my town of origin: a small, edge-of-the-wilderness place called Hibbing just south of the Canadian border. (For a cartoon point of reference, it's 60 miles due south of International Falls, Minnesota - the non de plume of which was "Frostbite Falls" in Rocky & Bullwinkle.) My father, or as his family and close friends called him, "Dabs," was a soft-spoken man, an Italian-American (his father, Dominic, was one of those gangs-of-New-York-off-the-boat Italian immigrants from a small Abburzo town, Rocca Morice), fought in the marine corp after World War II, was a barber for most of his civilian life...and, was not well educated. It served him, tho - an education was a luxury for a man of his time.

I got my start in Hibbing, obviously - attended Hibbing High School (a beautiful high school with imported marble, chandeliers, and mahogany and oak wood - a bribe, from the Oliver Mining Company in 1915, given to the town when OMC found iron ore under the town's original location), and started programming after school for the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (now defunct)...

There are two surprising things about this mini-bio for Young UberRocket:

  1. It took place between 1974 and 1978, long before PCs and Apple ]['s were a gleam in Gates & Jobs collective eyes
  2. It took place in one of the coldest, most remote locales in the continental US. (Go ahead, Northern Tip of Maine, debate me on this!)
I was reminded of both of these facts when I went back to Minnesota this week to bury Dabs - the town is a shadow of it's former-self, which is really saying something - since it's former-self was on life-support 30 years ago... Oliver Mining Company is long since gone, with the larger Mesabi Mining Company having taken control of the mine. The mine itself is the largest open pit mine on the planet - a testament to raping the landscape - however, in its heyday it employed 10,000 miners. Now, however, thanks to automation it takes only about 700 people to produce the same output...which leaves Hibbing residents scrambling for a new vocation.

So, in short:

northern minnesota + short growing season + mining operation - miners = ghost town in the making

Which leads me back to: how could I have even found the technology rocket, let alone boarded it, in a place that had - shall we say - other things on it's mind?

To be fair, some of this had to do with the desire/need/intensity to get the hell out of Dodge. It was pretty clear, even to an Iron Range adolescent, that this was Not The Place To Stay. The only road out was through education. That beautiful High School was good for more than just admiring the chandeliers, it attracted teaching talent -- which meant that the math, science and english teachers and curriculum were significantly above average. (I didn't realize this until after I got to college, and realized that I could test out of calculus, entry computer science and certain physics courses, because I already had been given that education.)

There's more to the story, of course - out of a graduating class of 460, a full 420 stayed behind in Hibbing -- so it wasn't just the opportunity provided by that high school... there was something else going on: my siblings and I all high-tailed it outta town to take some pretty serious tech jobs in various cities around the planet.

Which brings me back to Dabs - when I was writing his eulogy this past weekend, something occurred to me about the old man: despite his lack of formal education (it's unclear if he even graduated from high school, actually), Dabs was something of an engineer wannabe. When I was barely old enough to hold a wrench, he had me in that fucking frozen garage in the middle of a Minnesota winter re-gapping spark plugs. When I was given a chemistry set (note to the 20-something crowds who have had Jarts, Klackers and model rocketry taken away from them by a paranoid, whacked out 1980's-era, ruling parent class: chemistry sets in the 60's were honest-to-god chemistry sets. Real chemicals, working Bunsen burners...the whole nine yards), Dabs dragged out the encyclopedia Brittannica (note to the same 20-somethings: encyclopedia Brittannica == Wikipedia with a slower information refresh rate), opened it to "gun powder" and walked away before mom got suspicious. (Yes, I did succeed in blowing a hole in the basement floor.) He would come to pick me up at 3am from the "star parties" thrown by my astronomy teacher - yes, he was swearing the whole time, but he did it...

As I got older and more into electronics, Dabs would try to keep up -- the gadgets would break, and he and I would haul the mechanical carcasses into the basement workshop or the hardware store down the street, and 9 times out of 10 get the damn thing working again.

However at some point in my late teens, I started to drag primitive computers into the house - and Dabs met his match. He would sheepishly come into my room or wherever I had the large, clunky things set up (think Altair and Tandy computers), and ask me questions. I'd answer him in the hauty arrogance of a 16 year old...he'd shrug and leave. Eventually, he stopped coming. (Later, I would find him at the corner hardware store or in the garage among the tubes and wires and rubber that he felt most at home with....)

So...I blame both nature and nurture for lighting the fuse of the Rocket - thank you Dabs, I'm forever in your debt. (Note: Dabs is the little guy leaning against the gas pump in front of the hardware store where he'd later teach me how to solder.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Twitter's Potential Monetization Path: Marketing via the Antithesis of SPAM...uh, MAPS?

If you've living in the murky, smog-like haze of a next-gen web, social networking, and mobile networking reality - you know about twitter. For those of you that don't, twitter is a short messaging/party-line system where you can broadcast up to 140 characters at a pop to your friends and family, oh....and anyone else on Planet Earth who cares to listen in.

Despite well-publicized issues with Ruby as the root of their platform scalability problems, twitter is -by any measure - a runaway success:

  • Officially a year old as of the last SouthxSouthWest conference, twitter experienced user community growth from 1M users to 3M users in the last 6 months. (Approximate, since no one knows the exact figures.)
  • A plethora of twitter applications have sprung up (I just wanted to say "plethora") with more coming every day.
  • Twitter is gaining mind share in the non-twitter community, with twitter stories popping up on CNN, the New York Times, and other major news outlets. (Sure, they get it wrong 3/4ths of the time, but, hey - they're trying.)
  • Twitter competitors Jaiku and Pownce have been largely ignored by the media, and have underwhelming user numbers, as far as anyone can tell.
  • Websites are including "Twitter Alerts" on their main pages next to the RSS feeds so that users can be sent a tweet when a new item appears.
  • Twitter received $5.4M in funding in 2007, and another $15-$20M earlier this spring.
Yet, in spite of all this traction Twitter has not found a way to monetize:
  • Any broadcasted marketing message on Twitter is seen as SPAM, and - being an opt-in system anyway, who is going to see it except people who follow the SPAMmers? (Well, alright, to be fair - I do follow some "SPAMmers," such as Blu_ray, because it tweets information to me that I want to know.)
  • The Twitter platform could be used to attach advertisements to twitter messages, but with only 140 characters to play with that leaves no room in the payload for any meaningful ad message.
  • The twitter.com website really only exists as a posting portal, and due to twitters excellent public web services API, people are using sexier twitter clients - leaving not too many people go to twitter.com anymore.
  • The sexier twitter clients could be ad supported, but the monetization would go to the client development houses, rather than to twitter.
OK, now what?

Well, twitter is definitely experimenting with ways of getting dollars out of eyeballs. Part of the twitter web services API includes calls to allow developers to tap into the constant stream of public twitter traffic and take action. (Check out the most-excellent Twistori, as one such experimental visualization application.) Over the last few months I've noticed an interesting phenomenon: several followers of mine (like Tripixdesign) are not people, but companies.

These companies don't post anything with their twitter accounts, rather they just lurk in my twitter stream...listening to what I post. How did they find my twitter stream? With access to the public twitter feed, that part is easy: maybe I posted the tweet "I hate Comcast," and suddenly I find myself being followed by comcastcares . (Yeah, that really exists.) I believe what we are seeing with these lurkers is the birth of a different kind of marketing effort... not traditional SPAM, but some sort of Black-Spiderman/Bizarro-World SPAM, which I'll call MAPS.

On the surface, this might sound similar to a move made by Google's Gmail. Late last year, Gmail added a feature that I would have thought would have made a far bigger farting noise in the public forums than it did: targeted advertising based off of content in your email. Yeah, Gmail "reads" your email, looking for keywords that it uses for targeting advertising in the pane surrounding your messages.

Google's Gmail doesn't quite fit the MAPS model - Gmail places the user into an apriori contract: you are using the Google mail service without fees, and by doing so you implicitly agree to certain conditions: placing your personal email on their servers, for instance - and, if you were to actually read their ridiculously broad and open-ended EULA, you would realize that you allowed them certain rights - such as the right to pull keywords out of your email and use that information for ad targeting. This is a form of a forced-feedback loop: marketing information is not pushed back to the user after the targeting information is pulled from the same user. No input, no targeting.

In the MAPS model, on the other hand, information is simply collected from the user, and...never seen directly by that user. The information is collected and aggregated into a targeting database unencumbered by any sort of direct marketing connection. With a couple of simple web service calls, a MAPS data collection system can:
  1. read from your twitter stream
  2. pull out keywords
  3. compare it against keywords pulled from your followers
  4. draw a conclusion about your potential path through both the real world and the web world
By going through those steps, marketers can determine where people like you (not necessarily you, however) are most likely to spend their time over the next hour, 12 hours, or 24 hours. The more you tweet, the more you tell them what you are like, dislike, plan on doing, concerts you are going to, bars you are at, trips you are taking, and people you are communicating with in the real and virtual worlds.

So - that's how other agencies, ad companies and marketers are potentially using twitter to capitalize on twitter's public twitter stream and the twitterati themselves, but what about twitter.com itself? Do it better, twitter: you received between $20M and $25M in funding, and you don't have a large staff - after operational and staff costs you probably have between $15M and $20M left. (Unless you spend more on those parties of yours than I thought.) So, with all the cash: spend your way to monetization by creating a MAPS engine for which you can charge platform fees. Do this in three steps:
  • Get the hell off of Ruby. It's clearly not doing you any favors. (Thanks for the 2 hour outage yesterday, btw.)
  • Hire analysts and statisticians to create an advanced targeting, forecasting and inference engine that uses your database of tweets to forecast where masses of eyeballs might turn to for upcoming events, and return results to agencies and marketers based off of web services queries for a fee. Marketers and advertisers could use such a tool for both checking the results of a promotion ("How'd that price drop on HP laptops do?") and forecasting what people might be interested in ("Where is the best bar in LA to promote our new light beer this weekend?")
  • Change your EULA so twitterers know what you are doing.
Powerful stuff, kids - for the first time in history, MAPS allows advertisers a way to accurately predict where whole packs of people are spending their time, energy and - most importantly - money, and they can use that information to more accurately place their billboards, hold their promotions, and sell their products.

...if that is what they are doing. I'm sure they aren't...those lurkers are probably just...listening....watching...waiting. Uh, wait that's far creeper than MAPS marketing.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Drive Swap: Tearing open the Trusty Sony VAIO SZ370P

OK - Taking a brief break from pontification to discuss a little computer brain surgery.

Anyone who's been reading my nonsense for the past year knows that my workhorse laptop in a Sony VAIO SZ370P - a great machine that was purchased just before the Vista releases. In late Spring of '07 I upgraded the little bastard to Vista - and it ran beautifully.

Well, the SZ series from VAIO is now up to series 9 (SZ9xx), and includes faster processors, more memory and faster drives. Although I have my traditional Uber Gadget Lust for the newer SZ's, I don't want to shell out the coin for a new SZ until Sony throws a Blu-Ray drive in there... in the meantime, the 100Gig, 5400rpm drive that came with the SZ370 is starting to feel a little cramped and slow... a quick run down the Information Super Highway (tm) shows that 200Gig, 7200 rpm Seagate drives (Seagate Momentus 7200 2, or the ST9200420AS) are going for about $130 a pop.

No brainer, time to crack open this sucker...

This post will give readers a step-by-step guide to breaking into their SZ series (the cases on the SZ series are all the same), as well as how to replace to replace a drive in a Vista laptop without Vista screaming rape on the Internets back to the mothership. Last thing I need is freakin' Balmer showing up at my door with a baseball bat. (Oh, and you all know he'd do it.)

Ok, stuff you need:

Got it all, chief?

Oh sure, we could do this the safe way: copy the data on the old drive to a backup location, format the new drive and put a fresh copy of Vista on it, find all your applications from the old drive and re-install them on the new drive, etc.... Or, we can do this my way: just ghost the eff'ing thing to a new drive and hope for the best. Hey, that's what the Knob Creek is for...

So, fine - let's get this over with...

Step 1: Getting the new hard drive connected to the laptop

The new SATA drive has to be attached to the existing computer for ghosting - because the Seagate Momentus series SATA, and the SZ series doesn't have an external SATA port, you'll need a SATA external enclosure that translates SATA to USB-2 or Firewire. Rather than buy one specifically for the 2.5" drives, I took an enclosure that I had purchased last April for the Vista upgrade which houses 3.5" drives... since this wasn't going to be a permanent arrangement, who cares?

Step 2: Scaring up a Ghost...boo!

Ghosting is the act of making a bit-by-bit copy of one drive to another drive: the whole deal - boot sector, data, applications, file access tables...all of it. It's not a straight-forward operating system copy, and - in fact - can't be done from the native operating system at all. (Modern operation systems are always running, swapping cache data back and forth to the drive - meaning, that the OS itself is changing the contents of the drive as the drive is being copied.)

To successfully ghost, you need a application that will cause the system to boot up using a small little kernel that is resident in the computer memory - and doesn't fill up the drive with crap of its own. I picked Acronis Workstation 9.1, an application that was recommended to me last April for my RAID0 issue with my tower station, and did an amazing job. I upgraded the application to True Image Echo Workstation (or TI for short), and went to work.

Arconis starts in Vista, to give you a nice user interface, sets up a configuration file, and then reboots the computer - loading the smaller kernel in memory with the information from the configuration file.

When fired up, Acronis TI asks you what you want to do - although you may be tempted to hit "Backup," don't. What you really want to do is "Manage Hard Disks." Selecting this reveals a second screen that gives you the option of cloning your drive - cloning is another name for ghosting.

Very bad Acronis Action #1: Selecting on "Clone a Drive" reveals a very important screen that will make you swear like a sailor with the clap: "Automatic vs Manual" cloning. If you do what I did and pick "Automatic," Acronis TI will walk you through the appropriate steps for cloning, take just as long as an actual drive ghosting (about 3 hours) and....do absolutely nothing. Nice. Real eff'ing nice.

So...go with me here, and hit "Manual." Really. Trust me.

Hitting manual brings you through the drive selection process. You should see at least two drives listed here: the original drive still onboard the SZ370, and the new drive sitting on the enclosure that you have attached to the system. Selecting which one is the source and which one is the target is left as an exercise to the reader. As the new drive is larger that the original, Acronis TI's default action is to partition the new drive to its fullest capacity and then just move the contents of the old drive to comfortably into that space. You do, however, have the option at this point to play with partitions, making a second virtual drive.


After you've made your selections, Acronis TI examines both drives, reads the file allocation table on the old drive looking for sizing information, and sets up the boot partition on the old drive.

When it's done, it will present you with an information screen telling you what it plans to do, the number of steps it will take, and then asks you if your want to go ahead and do the deed.

At this point, take another shot of Knob Creek, and go for it. Your system will lock your old drive down so it can't be written to, and then commence a reboot.


Step 3: Creating the Clone...uh...Ghost...uh...Exact Same Drive

At this point, the SZ370 will reboot, but the operating system will not engage - instead the Acronis micro kernel will take over and start the ghosting process. Suck it up, grab a bigger glass, and pour a larger glass of the ol' Knob Creek, because you're here for a while. 3 hours to be exact. Sure - you could go play Halo3 on your XBox and not fret over the fact that the ghosting software that you purchased from a company you've never heard of before could be thrashing your hard drive. Well, I'm not that relaxed, ok? I'm just not...

The first think you'll see TI do is reanalysize all the partitions, defragment them, lock them down, and then check the new partitions on both drives to see if they are incapable of the clone process. Once this is done, the actual bit-by-bit cloning takes place. This process, referred to as "Operation 2 of 3" by Acronis TI is the step that takes the longest, and can be the most destructive to the drives.

Have a drink...be patient.




Very Bad Acronis Action #2: OK, here's another way that Acronis can waste three hours of your life through bad user experience testing. When the cloning is done, you get the "Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy!" screen - "Congratulations! You have successfully completed the hard drive cloning procedure."

Well, yes, that's very true. As is the "Press any key to reboot" suggestion at the bottom of the screen. What TI does not, in its exuberance at completing it's complicated ghosting task, tell you is this: If you reboot with the ghosted drive still attached, Vista will come back from the reboot, see two boot enabled drives, and remove the boot sector from the second drive - effectively effing up your ghosted edition. Three hours. Gone. Again.

Trust me here: when you get the congratulations screen immediately unplug the ghosted drive before touching any other bleeding button on your laptop. It's like religion at this point: just have faith that the ghosting worked without any proof whatsoever.

Step 3: Rip the Puppy Open!!

OK, all the namby-pamby software crap is out of the way, let's grab some manful, manly tools and get to work.

Like a helpless turtle found on the calm shores of life, flip the SZ over on its back. (Analogy too much?) Remove the battery before proceeding. You don't need to pull this off to work on the unit, but it makes it lighter, and removes the last remaining power source. (Uh, you did unplug the laptop, didn't you?)



There are four phillips-head screws that have to be removed at this point. These screws release the keyboard and the case covering on the front of the unit.








Flipping the unit back over, you can now ease the keyboard off. Between the F1 and F2 keys, and between the INSERT and DELETE keys, you will see barely visible little spring-loaded tabs that need to be eased back with the flathead screwdriver while you slowly pull the keyboard up. (This is where Niven and Pournelle's "Gripping Hand" would come in handy.)



At this point, the keyboard easily flips up. You can pull out the little flat ribbon cable connecting the keyboard to the motherboard, but its not necessary and not worth the risk of ripping the thin little cable. Simply lay the keyboard flat against the laptop's wrist-plate, or (preferably) up against the screen.

With the keyboard out of the way, three little screws that lock the wrist-plate in place are revealed. It's for these screws that you will need the little watch screwdriver - they are small, delicate and can be very easily stripped. Be careful taking them off, and - more importantly - be careful putting them back. Just tighten "to feel" when you do.

At this point, the wrist-guard can be slid away from the screen, revealing the hard drive. Like the keyboard, the wrist-guard has a few ribbon cables that connect the biometric scanner and the trackpad. It's not necessary to remove these either, as the wrist-plate can be flipped over and put on top of where the keyboard rested.



With the hard drive clearly revealed, yet another three screws (why always three, Sony??) need to removed in order to get the old drive out.







OK - scariest hardware move coming up: removing the ribbon cable to the drive. This thing is packed in there tight. Even with the drive screws removed, the drive cannot be lifted until the thin ribbon cable is removed. Unfortunately, Sony taped the damn ribbon cable from underneath. You need to spend a nice, relaxed, long period of time easing that cable off -- if you rip it, you're screwed. You'd have to order a new ribbon cable from Sony, and I have no dea what the part number is...so, uh, careful kids.

It's out! Excellent. All that's left to do now, is to take the two small rails off the side of the old drive, put them on the new one, and then your ready for Step 4!






Step 4: Uh...Repeat Step 3. Backwards.

Seriously. That's it. No pictures. No step by step. Just drink your Knob Creek, and put everything back together...I hope you were paying attention.

Step 5: Turn the Damn Thing On and Hope for the Best.

Ok - you've reassembled the unit, battery is back and the power is plugged in. If you've done everything right, you'll be greated by a final Acronis TI screen during the reboot cycle that says "Cloning Completed." Oh, happy day. The machine should now boot, with Vista being none the wiser.

After logging in, you will see Vista establish the drivers for the new hardware it has detected. At this point, one more reboot (the last one, I promise) needs to be performed, so that the drivers for the new drive can be firmly established. That's it, you're done.


Step 6: There is No Step 6

Seriously. You're done.

Let's prove it. A quick glance at the drive size reveals that you are now beefed up to a whopping 200gigs. (Well, minus 10Gigs for the boot sector and some lost clusters.)






What about the speed? Opening up the Vista performance rating test (Computer->Properties->Performance) will show the previous rating from the old drive - in my case, a paltry 4.6 out of 10.

Now, run the test again - it takes a few minutes. When it's done, you should see a noticeable increase in the disk transfer rate - in my case it went from 4.6 to 5.4...a 15% increase.

Done.






Aftermath

I did the upgrade about 2 weeks ago - so far, absolutely no problems, and nothing is lost. The unit generates a bit more heat (not much more, actually), but applications and data load noticeably faster - and the drive has plenty of space for all those Media Center videos I watch on the road.

OK, back to pontificating.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Folding@Home: Johnny Molecular Biologist!

This afternoon I was having an IM conversation with someone about the Sony Playstation 3 - and after extolling a few of the system virtues, I off-handedly remarked that the real reason I bought it was that I like to cure cancer... which, of course, got the ??? in the IM window.

In a nutshell, here's the deal - if you're 900 years old like I am, you'll remember when SETI@Home was all the rage. (Ok, I'm being a dick. With 3Million users, SETI@Home is still all the rage.) In the mid-90's, a group of plucky astronomers at Berkeley realized that their distributed network funding required to complete the massively parallel channel search for signals from extraterrestrials wasn't going to come through, no matter how many Carl Sagan-inspired movies starring Jodie Foster appeared... however, all those new fangled 386's on those brand new cable modems were just sitting there downloading porn. Surely, there must be some better way of utilizing all of those spare cycles out in the world that didn't actually annoy the wife.

Installed as a screen saver on Windows boxes, SETI@Home was the first, true distributed computing application that made use of the real power of the internet: in very poetic turn, all of the people who were making use of the internet (which was created out of the ashes of DARPAnet, USEnet and EDUnet) to buy books from Amazon and pretend they are Brad Pitt in chat rooms, could now give back to the world by donating spare cycles on their computers in a massive cooperation effort to search for intelligent life beyond the earth.

Flash forward to 2000, and Prof. Vijay Pande at Stanford was having the same trouble: how to fund a computing effort that consumed massive quanitities of CPU cycles on a limited budget to crack the simulation of kinetics and thermodynamics of proteins and nucleic acids? The problem was this: Pande, and other molecular biologists, knew the sequences of atoms required to construct a protein if placed in the wrong order could contribute to amyloid-related illnesses such as Alzheimer's Disease. If they could change the protein back to the correct order, it would go far to helping cure the disease. But without a roadmap, molecular biologists have no idea how to change the sequencing to get a proper structure out of the protein. (It's a bit like knowing the pile of lego blocks scattered on the floor infront of you forms a race car, but the only way you have to put the car together is to try to assemble the blocks without a pattern.)

This act of bending and twisting and playing with the individual atoms of a protein molecule (a process called "folding") is a required "next step" to being able to predict the structure of the molecule. Fundamentally, understanding the process of protein folding — how biological molecules assemble themselves into a functional state — is one of the outstanding problems of molecular biology. Unfortunately, the myrad ways that a the atoms of a protein molecule can be arranged is legion.

Professor Pande, taking a cue from the extraterrestial hunters on the other side of San Francisco, created Folding@Home in 2000, which - also installed as a screen saver - used the untapped power of idle home PCs to brute force the folding problem: literally trying every possible combination of atomic sequencing in a protein molecule to see what works.
On September 16, 2007, the Folding@Home project officially attained a performance level higher than one petaFLOPS, becoming the first computing system of any kind to hit that kind of peak performance. (Uh, a petaFLOP is 1,000 TeraFlops...and, uh, a TeraFlop is 1,000 MegaFlops...which is...fast.)

However, it wasn't enough - there was still far more work to do...

...enter the First Person Shooter crowd. With rapid advances in GPU (Graphic Processing Unit) and CPU (Central Processing Unit) speeds, modern gaming consoles like Microsoft's XBox 360 and Sony's Playstation 3 have power to burn: the sustained speed of a PS3 at full tilt is 30,191MFlops. Pande and crew began to salivate. Most gamers only use their machines several hours a week, the rest of the time the machine remain idle or off.

Pande's group (Uh, really. His homies are now officially known as the Pande Group inside Stanford) approached Sony and struck a deal - the Sony Entertainment group would slap a user interface on the project worthy of the PS3 interface, the application couild be downloaded from the Sony Marketplace and installed by the user (sort of a forced "opt in"), and the user was free to run the app in the background when the system would otherwise be idle. There is a cost to the user for this, of course - the GPU and CPU would be always working, which chews up a bit more of the home electric bill. In the end, however, a typical user feels good about the project, Sony looks like an altrusitic uncle, and Pande gets to fold and unfold his proteins until the cows come home...which is good, because bovine spongiform encephalopathy (uh, mad cow disease) is one of the nuts that can be cracked by protein folding.

Below is a 5 minute video where I walk through the current version of Folding@Home on the Sony PS3.



Oh, by the way - the Folding@Home computing cluser, since going Ps3 in 2007 and hitting 1 million users in Febuary of 2008 - currently operates above 1 Petaflop at all times. That's a lot of Grand Theft Auto, kids.

As promised, here's the links of interest:

Vijay Pande's Folding@Home blog
Berkeley's SETI@Home blog
Wikipedia's explanation of the protein folding problem

Image at top of posting courtesy of
Peter G. Wolynes,
Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, University of California - San Diego



Protein Folding Explained

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Going Out on a Limb: the Universe is NOT a Giant Brain Cell

I twittered last night about an interesting blurb that cycled up to the top of Digg, called "A Brain Cell is the Same as the Universe." I broadcasted the URL for the article, because I thought that the similarities were quite striking, and that something interesting could be learned about both structures because of this comparison....

...then I went to sleep - or tried to - and thought about this in bed for awhile. It occurred to me that the title of the article wasn't that the structures were similar, so much as they were the same. It was probably that title alone - plus the astonishing photos that accompanied it - that moved this article into the top of the Digg heap.

There are a few interesting fields in several branches of the sciences that focus on taxonomy - these fields are usually called "comparative," (as in "comparative biology"), and were quite popular when I was a college student back in the dawn of time. In a nutshell, the idea is that if something quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's probably a duck. Ok, that was ridiculously simplifed and probably insulting, but - hell's bells - it was fun to get to finally put that phrase in print.

In a larger nutshell, it works like this: if the structure of an organism allows it to operate in a certain fashion (say, a duck's respiratory system, vocal cords and gullet size allows it to make noise of a certain harmonic), it's a safe bet that if you find an unknown, unclassified organsim that has the same structure (say, lungs, simple vocal cords and same sized gullet) that it probably utilizes that structure in a similar fashion. (It probably quacks just like a duck.) There are other versions of this comparison study: comparative physics, comparative chemistry, etc.

This type of logic served us well enough - and, people will argue still does - until two things started to occur:

  1. Science & Technology got better.

    Before we had the ability to peer inside of structures (both large and small scale) and really understand (instead of just playing the "inferring game") how a given structure of an unknown construct functions, comparative xxx was really the only way science had to make assumptions about the unknown.

    Case in point: Venus has Dinosaurs. Until sometime in the 60's, there was a belief among some comparative astronomers that Venus had dinosaurs - this was a belief popularized by chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1918, which was picked up by Science Fiction writers everywhere. Now, before we make fun of long, dead Svante - consider this: he was a real guy. An honest-to-god scientist who was taken very seriously. He was not some I-had-a-beer-with-an-alien loony-tune, and his logic (which employed comparative sciences) was not bad:

    We cannot see the surface of Venus with a telescope. (True)

    Venus must be covered with clouds. (True)

    Venus is close to the sun, so if it's overcast all the time, it must be very hot due to greenhouse effects. (True)

    Clouds have water. (Uh, well...kinda true, but...)

    If it's hot and cloudy and wet there, it must be raining all the time! (Um, wait a second...)

    So, the surface of Venus must be swampy!!!!!!!!!! (Well, if it's raining water, I guess, but...)

    What do we have in our past that reminds us of a rainy, swampy surface?? (Uh...hold on...)

    The Carboniferous Period!!! (Wait, wait...stop!)

    There were dinosaurs in the Carboniferous Period!!!!!!!!! (Well, that's true, but...)

    Ergo, Venus has dinosaurs!!!!!! (Ergo???)


    Fortunately, it was soon after that humans developed the ability to do spectroscopic analysis using telescope data, and found that the Venusian clouds are composed of sulfuric acid, not water. Ergo, no dinosaurs -- however, the whole episode does remind us that making comparisons of anything is treading on dangerous waters. It's best to say "I have NO idea what the hell that thing is!" then to make comparative analysis.

  2. Comparative Analysis Started Jumping Disciplines.

    ..
    and this is where the field really jumped the shark, because two things happened at once:

    a) The rapid pace of science discovery and technological innovation outstripped the general layman's ability to keep track of what was going on in any particular field. (Well, that and the rise of reality television and the evangelical right, but I digress.) This causes a public relations problem, of course, and increases the need for trust in scientific opinions and publications.

    and

    b) Reportedly real scientists like Clifford Pickover of Yale, have begun to engage in dangerous public speculations using comparative anaylsis between diciplines (in this case neurobiology and cosmology) as a base. (See? I brought this back around to the subject of this post in the first place! Yay!)

    Pickover, in his "A Brain Cell is the Same as a the Universe" blog posting is absolutely violating this construct: he is clearly comparing the structure of a nanometer object in neurobiology (a brain cell), to the largest scaled cosmological structure that we know (the Universe) and QED'ing a ridiculous conclusion.

Now, there is nothing wrong with doing the comparison, and both fields of study might actually learn something: Take a look at the two objects: clearly there are structural similarities that are worth investigating. Gravitational and string forces holding the structure of the universe together (and allowing information to flow back and forth) are clearly arranged in similar pathways to neural tendrils which perform basically the same function of holding the neurons together and facilitating communications.

Where Pickover goes dangerously off the rails - and judging by the forum posts in the Digg article, a lot of layman have followed him - is his implication (because he never actually says anything in his blog posting aside from his exclamatory title and a few wizened passages from Abdu’l-Bahá) that the structures aren't just similar (thereby performing similar functions) but that they are exactly the same (thereby implying that the Universe a giant brain cell in someone else's head - how hermonculous of him).

I'll go on record here for all to see: uh, the Universe is not a giant, fucking brain cell. I'm not using any fancy-pants science or technology here to make that leap of logic, just common sense, a reasonable understanding of how the world works, and no book of my to hock in my blog...ok, I am using a little comparative analysis of my own:

Pickover is a respected, published scientist on-the-fringe. (True)

Arrhenius was a respected, publish scientist on-the-fringe (True)

Both Pickover and Arrhenius engaged in wild, public speculation in order to gain attention (True)

Arrhenius was so far wrong that history only remembers him as a crackpot. (True)

...uh...ergo....uh.....well, you get the idea.

Credits to Mark Miller of Brandeis University for the micrograph of the neural structure, and to Astrophysical Union for the computer representation of the large scale structure of the Universe.

Monday, April 14, 2008

...Chumby Decended from Audrey, Cornelius?! Heresy!

I read an interesting article in Wired the other week, which claimed that a growing amount of traffic on the internet was from "hidden devices." Meaning that non-obvious consumer products were using the internet for various reasons: updating information, exchanging status data, accessing internet radio, etc.

This idea was presented as though it was a new trend - but the practice has been around for quite a while - TiVo and ReplayTV being a few of the first consumer devices to "hide" their internet activity. In the mid- to late-90's, these little gizmos were called "Internet Appliances," a term that has been revived by the now popular "Chumby."

For those of you living a reasonable life, reading the New York Times and eschewing anything to do with any pop culture relavence for the past 6 months, "Chumby" is a cute little device with a screen that looks like a digital picture frame. It's encased in what can only be described as a "beanbag." It's adorable, really.

So, what does Chumby do? Anything - sort of. It's a WiFi enabled, fully web configurable internet device that can do everything from simply display the time and digital pictures, to play internet radio and display Twitter Tweets. It will dock to multiple iPods, playing the content through its cheery little speakers. The API is extremely open, and has become a plaything not only for weekend hackers, but also soccer moms who want something cushy next to the Sanyo coffee maker. It's captured the imagination of a lot of people, and has gotten quite a bit of media attention. "Why didn't anyone think of this before?" decried one reviewer...?

...they did. Allow me to (re) introduce you to "Audrey," which was manufactured by 3Com (remember them?) during the heyday of the dot-com era. (1999-2000.) Audery was, well, a fully web configurable internet appliance that could do everything from simply display the time and digital pictures, to play internet radio and display email. It would dock to multiple Palm Pilots, happily aggregating and resync'ing the families address books and calendars. The OS was a Linux varient that could be accessed via an xterm window, and had become a plaything not only for weekend hackers, but also soccer moms who wanted something friendly next to the Krups coffee maker. (The device got its name from the daughter of one of the designers, and the thing actually giggled when you turned it on.)

The difference between the two machines? Chumby's exterior is squishy, Audrey's is kitchen-appliance sleek. Oh, and Chumby appears to be poised for commercial success, while the Audrey contributed to the downfall of 3Com. Why? Oh what a difference 10 years makes...

Back in the late 90's, dot-com companies were everywhere, and promising to change your life via the internet. Few companies made good on that promise, of course - but several companies attempted more than just new takes on shitty web site concepts...a few tried creating actual, physical products that did specific tasks. The problem with 99% of these products was that they did those specific tasks extraordinarily badly. While their aim was nobile enough (i.e. be as easy to use as a piece of stereo equipment), the consumer electronics industry didn't have the experience under its belt to create easy-to-use internet devices, and the animosity between the CE manufacturers and the computer manufacturers practically guaranteed mutually assured destruction if these two worlds ever tried to cooperate. (There were exceptions, of course, such as TiVo and the iPod - both of which filled a niche that no one realized needed to be filled, and both did so with an exceptional user experience coupled with a slick, seamless connection to the net.)

The Audrey was a device that stands nearly alone in that it was a machine that provided a slick, user friendly experience, and filled a distinct need in the home (it functioned primarily as an "always on" computer, aggregating information about the user family's daily life so that the home could exchange information as easy as could an enterprise business. Preprogrammed websites could be "dialed" into via the single knob on the front, to display new, weather and movie times.) It was relatively inexpensive (tallying in at slightly less than $300 vs. Chumby's $180 price tag), came in about 12 colors to fit in with most home kitchen color schemes, and was waterproof incase little Muffy spilled the orange juice on it.

So what went wrong? Classic, really: the device was too early. In 1999, which was only 9 years ago, computers were still large, expensive, confusing things...iPods were just catching on...and Palm Pilots were still considered nerdly toys. In other words, most family members were not part of the digerati, and most homes were not wired for allways-on internet. (A requirement for both Audrey and Chumby.) Essentially, no one needed what it offered...yet. Today, however, Audrey would be quite happy nestled into the kitchen, giggling away as the family sync'ed their iPods to it, its glowing touch pen happily shining green whenever a Tweet appeared.

So - be proud of your ancestry, Chumby - you have much to be thankful for...