Wired Gadget Labs had a neat little article, with pictures, about this fellow in England. He makes art photographs of fluorescent tubes in standing in fields, powered by the overhead power lines. You have to see it to believe it, it’s incredible, but in a “Wow! But… what are they doing to my body if they can do that?” kind of way.

[Fluorescent bulbs lit by Magnetic Fields at Wired]



I’ve spent a lot of time driving the last couple of weeks, and living in the Midwest, it’s always a case of trying to keep the windshields clean and how often do we replace the wiper blades. You can imagine my interest when I read at Sparkingtech about a new prototype technology that uses nanotechnology to keep your windshields clean instead.

Italian car designer Leonardo Fioravanti (of Pininfarina fame) has developed a prototype car with a windshield that doesn’t need wipers. It can brush away water and dirt all by itself.

The article is short on details, and I don’t really pretend to understand those they do include, but if I can get a windshield that stays clear without wipers, sign me up, even if nanotechnology is morally questionable.



Robot that Replays Dreams

February 18, 2008 | 1 Comment

I don’t generally remember my dreams, and so I’m naturally curious about what my subconscious gets up to while I’m not looking, as it were. I’m not sure, however, that I’d want to have them reenacted by a robot that took my ECG, EEG and eye movements as input.

Fernando Orellana and Brendan Burns have collaborated on a new art work which investigates one of the possible human-robot relationships.

Using recorded brainwave activity and eye movements during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep to determine robot behaviors and head positions, “Sleep Waking” acts as a way to “play-back” dreams.

On the other hand, it would be really interesting to find out if watching the robot would cause me to remember what I don’t.



The Age of Human Factors

February 13, 2008 | 2 Comments

Wired is over in Barcelona, covering the GSMA show. As you might expect, the news this week is all about cell phones, but Charlie Sorrel made some comments in his coverage that resonated:

Most apparent at the show, the biggest mobile conference in the western world, is that nobody is doing touch screens properly.

Sure, Apple didn’t invent touch screens, but it was arguably the first company to do it right. Sony Ericsson, no latecomers to the touch game, showed myriad new phones today, and of all of those we tried out, the UI was invariably clunky, counter-intuitive, or downright hard to navigate.

Flashy, animated icons are great, but not if they come at the expense of usability. It feels like everyone is scrambling to add touch capabilities because they feel they have to, ease-of-use be damned. The point of the iPhone is being missed: It’s a pleasure to use because of the fancy UI, designed from scratch to be intuitive, attractive and easy.

This struck a nerve with me. I recently spent a large chunk of time working with some folks who, to be brutally honest, didn’t know the difference between a flashy interface, and a beautiful and intuitive one. It’s very easy to mistake flashy for easy to use and intuitive, it seems. I’ve seen it done time and time again, and Charlie’s comments seem to reinforce that it’s even more common than I thought.

I’ve even been told of some products “It doesn’t have to work, it just has to look good.” This sort of extreme position, saying in effect “it’s okay if it’s garbage, so long as we can wrap it up pretty we can sell it” gives me heartburn. I take pride in my work, and I can’t really line up behind “it’s okay if it doesn’t work.”

I’ve begun to wonder if the proliferation of flashy is a question of capabilities: whether people recognize a attractive, clean, intuitive user interface such as the iPhone, and want desperately to emulate it. Unfortunately they don’t have the skill or training, and  do what they can, which results in flashy.

I know what I’m good at. There are a considerable number of skills I’ve honed in 20 years: mentoring, project management, software architecture, security, requirements, business analysis, development, testing, and a fair degree of psychology, frankly.

I know I’m not skilled in human factors, the study of making sure that our interactions with computers are as easy and intuitive as possible. I haven’t an artistic bone in my body it seems, as I’ve created some fugly interfaces in my time. I know the difference when I see it, I know when I’ve produced something ugly and hard to use, but not how to make it better. That’s why I need these skilled professionals to help me  fix it. It’s like not being able to reach an itch in the middle of your back.

Human factors is as much art as science, and I suspect it’s a pretty rare skill. I’ve only run into a handful of people truly who have it.  Sometimes it seems like Apple got all of them: maybe that’s where they all are.

Apple has a history of making a product that looks good and is intuitive: the Mac was the first commercially successful computer with a gui interface (way back in Windows 2 and GEM Desktop days, for those who remember those). Most PCs today are still beige boxes, while current Macs are attractive and functional. I still drool over the Mac Cube, frankly, and wonder why PCs are still stuck in the past.

And then we come to the iPhone and iPod. Wow. I think these devices really raise the ante for all of us. They’ve got beautiful, usable interfaces, which clearly others are trying to emulate. With Apple seemingly having hired all the people who are any good at human factors, I think we’ve got our work cut out for us.

It’s nice to see devices like these, they’re a joy to look at and use, but as someone who produces software for a living, they’re a little intimidating. I realize the magnitude of the challenge they present to us as software professionals. We have to do much better at designing interfaces like these. The public will come to expect it, and will flock to those who can provide it.



Wired Labs is over in Barcelona at the GSMA show, and they’ve posted this article about their hands-on experiences with Android, the much-hyped “Google Phone”.

“…judging by the crowd reaction, these ‘phones’ are the hit of the show.”

I mentioned Android briefly once before, when talking about Palm’s decline, but here’s a quick catch-up.

Google Android is an effort to create an open-source mobile/cell phone platform, onto which anyone could add their own features. Rather than having a locked in platform such as Motorola or Nokia, Android’s specs are out there to be used by anyone.

It’s a little easy to dismiss the breathless mentions of Android as just another tempest in a teacup, but the Goog claims 30 vendors on board, so maybe this will evolve into something. One day not so long ago, PCs were “IBM Computers”, then they became “IBM Compatibles”, with the claims of “100% compatible”. These days, that claim is nowhere in sight, so there’s precedent for software platforms moving from the proprietary to commodity world, why couldn’t it happen with cell phones? There are more of those than computers, it makes a certain sense.

What was Wired’s assessment?

Right now the UI is clunky and slow, but the fact that so many manufacturers are already on board means that Android is already a success.

It’s too early to tell whether Android will unhinge the handheld computer/cell phone world, but It’s going to be an interesting thing to watch.



Gizmodo had this interesting link to techabob‘s site, where he gives a quick pitch on an in-dash car PC called NaviSurfer II. This little unit comes without an OS, but has an adjustable built-in touchscreen LCD display, and costs less than $1,000 (without USB accessories).

They’ve got a nice list of accessory modules too:

I’ve thought for a long time that I’d like to put a PC into my little BMW 328iS, but one of the problems has been where to put the display. It’s not what you’d call “roomy” in there, and I didn’t really want to drill holes in the dash.

This unit would solve the problem nicely. I’d have to get some sort of stereo receiver so I could still listen to broadcast, but this looks like it’d do the trick otherwise.



Gizmodo has an article up with video and text on the successful firing of the Navy’s new railgun. For those unfamiliar with the idea, it’s basically a really big eletromagnetic projectile accelerator. You pump a bunch of current through a series of really big electromagnets, aligned along a barrel, and it accelerates your projectile.

The US Navy has just completed a 10-megajoule test fire of their huge rail gun. For the first time ever, they fired a projectile with a velocity of 8,270 feet per second. That’s an amazing 5,640 mph, and the gun is only firing at a third of its potential power.

If you’ve got the time, a bit of skill with a soldering iron, and are bored, you can build your own. Please remember to wear safety glasses while firing.

I have to wonder a couple of things about this article. The first is, where do you get all the electricity to power one of these things on a ship? Would a nuclear reactor be sufficient (I’d think so)? How long would it take you to charge up the capacitors to fire it (what’s the rate of fire)? And finally, what kind of shielding are you going to have to put on all the electronics if you’ve got an electromagnet emitting an EMP this freaking big?



I’ve seen the story of a US spy satellite currently in orbit which has “lost power and propulsion” and is set to come crashing down to Earth in the near future.  Some sources are reporting that it’s likely a photo reconnaissance satellite. Both the articles I read mentioned that there’s no way to control the bird now, that we don’t know where it’s coming down, and “it may contain hazardous substances” (as if falling from the sky wasn’t hazardous enough).

The thing I keep wondering is, if it’s so highly classified that we can’t tell you what type of satellite it is, or why and when it lost power, then who’s going to go and make sure nobody looks at it when it crashes (by picking up the pieces, maybe?), and when are they going to know where they’re going to?



When I set up Adept Technologies, I needed to set up my own cell phone account.  So naturally I had to decide what type of phone or smartphone to get.  I bought a Palm Treo 755p, with service through Sprint.  Some of you are probably cringing already, but I’ve been telling friends since I bought it that it’ll be the last Palm I own. Not because I don’t like them, but I do think that Palm’s lost it’s edge. With the reports today that Palm is going to be closing it’s retail stores by the end of the month, I’m more certain than ever that this is true.

What happened to Palm? I’ve been a user of PalmOS devices for the better part of the last 10 years. I’ve carried a Palm V, a Palm Vx, a Treo 600, 650 and now a 755. For much of that time, there was a certain cache involved with having a Palm device.  I still recall the breathless reviews of the first Treo 600’s as “the thing to have”.

But Blackberry came along, and the iPhone, and the Nokia n95’s and soon there’ll Android, and I think Palm just failed to keep up. And the tech community believes in keeping to the Code, that’s for sure. Fall behind and you get left behind.

And to make matters worse, there’s the choice of Sprint as well for my service. *sigh*

I had misgivings right from the start about buying a Palm for this go-around. The primary reason I didn’t choose something like a shiny new Crackberry, like my friends have, was my familiarity with the Palm, and all the software that I already had after a decade of using them. Things like: a cryptographically secure password management tool (STRIP) with an established database of all the passwords I use; and time tracking software (with it’s share of annoying bugs, I grant you), that I’ve used for years to keep track of client billable hours.

So I went ahead and got the Palm. But it wasn’t that warm, giddy feeling I’ve learned to associate with new technology purchases. It was more melancholy, and I knew as I bought it, that it was the last Palm-powered device that I’d likely own. It felt in a way like Autumn, when you know that the days will soon be frigid and short, and you want to hold on as long as you can to what you have now.

Palm may manage to pull it off with a new OS (if they ever manage to ship it), but I’m not counting on it. And while the tech community is fickle, and might line up behind a new Palm OS (if they ever manage to ship it), Palm’s base of support continues to erode as the new devices attract all the neophiles. That new OS will have to be pretty good…

Anyone have a recommendation on what to get next?



I noticed today that Infoworld has an article about Apple and their increasing market share.

“However, malware researchers and industry analysts warn that as the sheer number of Apple end-point devices in use worldwide rise, so will the security concerns tied to the company’s products.”

This brought to mind a comment when I was doing my graduate school work. One of the professors at a presentation I was making on the Morris Internet Worm remarked that “Maples don’t get Dutch Elm Disease.” The point being sometimes diversity is good.

Sexual reproduction in nature evolved for a reason. Populations evolve with different gene pools, and those gene pools are recombined and remixed with every individual that comes along (if you’re doing it right…). That helps them survive attacks from bacteria and viruses, and also to provide them with that occasional mutation that gives them the edge to survive. Just take a look at the evolution of drug-resistant germs in order to get a view of this process in fast-forward.

Windows-based computers used to be the primary targets of all kinds of malware, and still are due to their popularity. But as other platforms become more prevalent, then they suffer the fate of rising above the radar: they become targets in proportion to their popularity. While the Mac can claim some resistance to these sorts of attacks (justifiably, I think) based on it’s *NIX heritage and the better compartmentalization of permissions, that’s at least partly irrelevant. The theater of action has changed.

Today, malware hides in application space just as much as in the OS space. And that’s a much more difficult problem to solve, as the number of applications is obviously bigger than the number of OSes on which they live. All it takes is for one developer to make a mistake in his code to create an opening through which malware can pass.

The days of blithely dismissing malware for today’s darlings (the Mac, the iPhone, and all those other highly connected devices) are numbered.

Speak of the devil… Malicious MMS worm hits Nokia handsets

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