Charlie's Diary

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Sun, 04 Jun 2006

Paging Batman

one man special forces flying wing

This appears to be heading for flight tests early next year. An unpowered version has been developed for the German army -- next year's model is due to feature two small gas turbine engines and a cruise range of up to 200 kilometres after the paratroop leaves the mother ship.

Where did I leave my bat-beacon?

(Thanks, jwz!)

[Discuss toys]

posted at: 12:49 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 04 May 2006

Tonguing the physics model

I'd have been a lot more talkative this week -- I was planning to resume regular blogging -- if not for the fact that on Tuesday my shiny four-week-old laptop began showing signs of severe flakiness. Some twelve hours of brown-pants backups (yes, I back up regularly, what's your problem with multiple backups?) followed by another twelve hours of diagnostic tests confirmed that the hard disk has the electronic equivalent of chickenpox, a rash of bad blocks proliferating across its surface. It's a good ten years since I've had an honest-to-god disk crash; this really takes me back. And indeed, take back the laptop is exactly what I did next: it's in the shop for the next week or so, and I'm now running a week behind schedule.

I notice that in the computer graphics world Ivan Sutherland's wheel of reincarnation is still turning, sort-of: the latest topic to hit the Register seems to be physics engines (like the Ageia PhysX chip reviewed behind that link). 3D graphics is all very well, but for a realistic VR or gaming environment (which is largely the same thing these days) you want realistic physics -- objects should exhibit the same sort of dynamics as they do in the real world, except where the designer wants them to deviate for enhanced game-play. My eyes nearly fell out when I got to the bit about the PhysX being effectively a 4x4 array of vector processors, able to peak near 50GFlops when fully utilized: I last paid attention to this sort of thing back in the days when 0.5GFlops was the sort of thing universities would pay big money to house in their computing centres. Doubtless in a decade's time the idea of throwing 50GFlops at optimizing the trajectories of your grenade fragments in a first-person shooter will be ho-hum, but right now it's got me wondering what the implications are going to be like when this sort of thing gets cheaper/faster/embedded in your cellphone. Put it together with the tongue sensor (that feeds data to you sublingually) and I'm thinking it'd be bloody useful to use one of these things for proximity analysis (with input from your phone's position sensor and your eyeglasses video cameras). Train the user how to react with a few hours of some DDR-alike full-body motion game cued via the tongue and, well, you didn't see that mugger? No need, your phone spotted him and body-swerved you around him while it uplinked his mugshot to the police.

[Discuss Writing (3)]

posted at: 18:38 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 20 Dec 2004

Books I want for Christmas

Harry Potter and the Call of Cthulhu

(From somethingawful, of course. Why do you ask?)

posted at: 18:04 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 30 Nov 2004

Memo to self

I have just remembered why it is that I don't play computer games.

Roughly 25 hours immersed in Neverwinter Nights -- in just 3 days -- is all it took. Now I'm on the wagon for at least 24 hours, because I need to (a) get some sleep and (b) get back to work on rewriting GLASSHOUSE, and (c) the cats were complaining.

Avoiding computer games is a vital defense mechanism, in my case. And it goes double for the kind of computer game that has narrative drive and a nondeterministic story line and even -- horrors! -- rudimentary characterization. Like, uh, NWN, even if it is just warmed-over AD&D. Okay, multi-player networked AD&D with user-extensible bits and cracking graphics. After that 25 hours or so of gameplay I'm still learning, and I'm maybe halfway through the introductory module, and have about five more stacked up behind it -- I reckon I could easily lose six months in here if I don't exert iron self-control.

(I'm just wishing I'd tried it earlier in the chest bug from hell.)

[Discuss toys]

posted at: 13:55 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 11 Jul 2004

What I did yesterday ...

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

I must remember that digital cameras -- especially pocket snapshotty-things -- have significant shutter lag. I don't get to go to air shows often enough to justify buying a real camera and a telephoto Lens of Doom, which is why this shot of the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (Spitfire, Hurricane, and Lancaster seen in close formation) is a bit grainy and, well, crap. But we had a good time yesterday at the annual air show at the National Museum of Flight at East Fortune, getting re-acquainted with the sound of fast jets on afterburner and gaping at the exotics (the only F-86A Sabre flying in Europe! The only airworthy Sea Vixen in the world!), and the Red Arrows were their usual inhumanly precise selves.

I was interested to see a WWII re-enactment society at the show. I wonder how long it'll be until we see a Cold War re-enactment society?

[ Discuss Cold War ]

posted at: 12:54 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 16 Mar 2004

One gadget I'd like to buy

Having just finished another novel, I scratched my head over how my working methodology has changed in the past year.

A year ago I was mostly working on an Apple Powerbook G4, 15" screen, 1GHz processor and 1Gb of RAM. Those machines are the bee's knees ... if what you want is a transportable desktop machine with the performance and screen size that implies. As a laptop something that big is a little bit vulnerable. I dented mine. Not good.

I decided to downgrade to an iBook G4. It was nearly as powerful as the Powerbook, but half the price (Only 640Mb of RAM instead of 1Gb, but if you're just writing a book and web surfing, what's the difference?) The iBook is a great little laptop and it beats the pants off trying to wrestle Linux onto any Intel laptop, which is why I'm now almost an obligate Mac-head -- I switched to Linux from Apple, and now I've switched back again as Apple added the UNIX infrastructure I wanted.

But the laptop is still kind of cumbersome. Mostly it sits on an iCurve stand on my desk, with a bluetooth mouse and keyboard, and acts like an ersatz desktop machine -- except when I take it away in a big padded backpack. It's not, in other words, my permanent companion.

Palm PDAs are a hell of a lot better at portability, but not quite there yet as a companion machine. The Tungsten T3 I'm currently using is tooth-grindingly close but it's hampered by an operating system out of the stone age (or the late 1980's), and being just slightly too small. Something closer in size to the original Apple Newton -- the Messagepad 100 -- would be better. The MP100 was unfashionably large by modern PDA standards, being pitched at the size of a reporter's notepad. I'm pretty sure you could cram a PalmOS machine into that size, with a 640x480 colour screen and WiFi and Bluetooth and multiple expansion slots, and still have plenty of room for batteries (please, Palmsource, go back to using disposable over-the-counter cells!) and a decent-sized stylus.

But on the other hand ...

... I have lately found myself day-dreaming about a tablet iBook.

In my dream, the tablet iBook would be exactly the same size as a current-model 12" iBook, except maybe a couple of millimetres thinner. Instead of a traditional clamshell laptop body, with a keyboard/trackpad on the bottom half and a screen built into the lid, there'd simply be a screen with a toughened glass or plastic front on top, like the Tablet PC form machines from the likes of HP and Compaq (but without the whizzy bolt-on keyboards). It would have a pen, instead of a mouse, and Bluetooth; a keyboard would be an optional extra, connecting via Bluetooth or USB. There'd probably be no internal CD/DVD drive at all, but support for an external USB drive. The space freed up by the optical drive would both lighten the machine and make for a spare battery bay, giving a 10-hour road life. For handwriting input, let it use Graffiti; if it was easy enough for a million businessmen to learn it on their PDAs, it'll work well on a tablet iBook today.

One important note: stick to iBook components. Make it the same size as a 12" iBook. Use the same motherboard, the same batteries, if possible the same screen elements (with the addition of the digitizer). Let's not see a whole new range of expensively customized hardware. By keeping to standardized components, Apple could commoditize this particular unit, keep it cheap ... and sell one to every desktop Mac owner as a mobile companion.

I see a tablet iBook being used exactly as Microsoft tried to get people to use the tablet PC -- with a big difference. Microsoft screwed their Tablet PC by pitching it at corporate sales forces and managers, and targeting it at the £1600/$2500 price point. This is just plain wrong. Mobile sales staff need a full-size laptop (but it better be cheap!), while their bosses need a PDA and a desktop. Trying to combine all of that in one machine at a premium price left people scratching their heads and asking, "why should I pay $3000 for a tablet PC when I can pay $1000 for a desktop and $500 for a PDA?"

In contrast, the Mac user base is skewed heavily towards creative and media types. I'd love to have a machine I could stick in a desk stand and type text onto with a keyboard, then pick up and take away and edit the text on with a pen. And I bet that with Photoshop and Illustrator on board, a tablet iBook would be a big hit with graphic professionals looking for a quick, easy tool for doodling and developing ideas. Scribble on it on the move, then transfer the concepts to the main desktop system back at the design shop. PDAs are woefully underpowered when it comes to this sort of task -- the existing drawing tools are just toys. A tablet iBook, in contrast, could work with the same suite of design tools as a full-blown desktop Mac, but make it easier to take the design suite on the road to see clients.

The one thing a tablet iBook would have to be is cheap. But iBooks are already cheap entry level laptops, and the tablet model could be cut-down even further -- no hinge, no trackpad, no keyboard, no optical drive, a display element embedded inside the sealed lucite lid casing. The only extra hardware would be a stylus and the digitizer -- which is not the priciest component of any PDA by a long way. The main changes would lie under the hood, in software support for a Graffiti-like pen input system, a digitizer, and ensuring that the OS could be driven (at a pinch) without a keyboard. It should be possible to retail a machine like that for around £500 or US $750.

If Apple ever get round to it, I'll be in like a shot, because I don't like having to sit at a desk in front of a computer to edit text -- the desk is for writing. Editing a manuscript is something you do with a pen, sitting on the sofa or in bed with the material on your lap or spread around you. Likewise, the graphics workstation is for production work. Generating ideas is something that happens on the move, while visiting clients, in the local cafe, or anywhere. Think of the tablet iBook as a machine for helping people to think different in different places.

[Discuss toys]

posted at: 18:05 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 23 Feb 2004

Thinking outside the [beige] box

Wave Report takes a look at a really cool NEC research project aimed squarely at replacing those boring rectangular computers we interact with with something ... different.

P-ISM is a "concept computer" -- an exercise in blue-sky design aimed at reconceptualizing what the hell a computer ought to be like. Wave Report's folks say: "the design concept uses five different pens to make a computer. One pen is a CPU, another a camera, one creates a virtual keyboard, another projects the visual output and thus the display and another a communicator (a phone). All five pens can rest in a holding block which recharges the batteries and holds the mass storage. Each pen communicates wireless, possibly Bluetooth."

I got yer computer, right here in this pocket protector.

But seriously, this is cool; I don't hold much hope for the projector screen (it adds a hidden requirement -- for a flat white surface), but flexible OLED roll-up displays are on the way, and they'd do the same job. I'm not sure about the virtual keyboards (ever tried touch-typing on the top of a table?) but a minor design compromise would be to use something like Think Outside's forthcoming folding bluetooth keyboard for PDAs (itself not much bigger than the base station for the P-ISM) when a keyboard is required, and a bluetooth-equipped stylus with some kind of position sensor for mouse/handwriting input the rest of the time. Storage is getting cheaper and consuming less energy, to the point where the next generation of PDAs (due by 2005) will sport gigabytes of solid-state storage, so it's a done deal. Power is still a headache but maybe fuel cells will replace batteries some time soon -- who knows?

The key thing is to get away from beige boxes. The beige-box appliance model is inherently limiting, as a quick glance at the history of home stereo systems will demonstrate. Back in the 70's we all had chunky racks of boxes, sized for a 19" rack because that was just big enough to accomodate a turntable and tone-arm sized for 33 rpm vinyl disks. And everything fitted around this form factor, because the box was a standard size. Even cassette decks were sized to fit the turntable and the 12"-diameter LP record, until the Walkman came along and upset several apple carts by demonstrating that you could have high quality stereo cassette players that were sized in proportion to their own medium. More recently, we've seen music centres shrink until they're sized in proportion to the compact disc format -- about 12 centimetres wide. It's taken the iPod to break us free from that particular blind spot, and it's still very much a handicap of all modular sound systems that they are built to accomodate the largest standard physical medium currently in use.

It's the same with computers. We size them to fit their big, rigid, glass-fronted screens; thus we have PDAs (a screen with a slab of electronics glued to their ass), tablet PC's and notebooks (a bigger screen with a slab of electronics hooked up to them via a hinged joint), and desktops (the IBM "three box" layout, dating to about 1982). But once we cut loose from physical screens, or switch to flexible displays or projector displays or eyes-up displays, we can throw the traditional form factors out of the window and have fun.

I don't think the Borg-style wearable is going to catch on as a day-to-day system for most people (although discreet spectacle-mounted displays and tiny cameras for life journaling are a bit more plausible) because they're simply too intrusive. As Peter Cochrane noted, about the quickest legal way to empty a first-class railway compartment is to open your briefcase and start attaching your mobile office to your head. People respond to wearable computers with reflexes honed by years of exposure to "Terminator", "Universal Soldier", and Star Trek. Which is to say, only the bad guys wear their hardware on the outside. However, I think something that resembles a pen case with five pens and a fold-out keyboard is much easier to accomodate on your person and fit into your life, and it kicks the shit out of a traditional laptop design. Remember the old monochrome plasma-screen luggables of the late 1980's? Or how your archaic stereo separates system with the turntable on top looks today? Thats how cumbersome today's iBook is going to look in five to ten years' time. This is a viable model for how the future will look, and I'd be surprised if something conceptually similar to the P-ISM isn't near-as-dammit permanently attached to my anatomy by 2014.

[Link Via slashdot] [Discuss toys]

posted at: 19:59 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 21 Dec 2003

From the classified ads column

Someone's selling an aircraft carrier on eBay.

It appears to be the 17,500-ton Colossus Class light fleet carrier HMS Vengeance, most recently used by the Indian navy as a helicopter carrier and refitted with an angled flight deck after the second world war. The minimum bid is US $6.5M, with an instant sale for offers over $8M, and you'll probably want at least double that to get it even remotely seaworthy -- it's not exactly in good shape.

My alter-ego the Evil Overlord is counting his filthy lucre and speculating about the cost of buying a brace of Sea Harriers and setting out to conquer a small Pacific atoll for use as his Island Base ... although he'd rather own the current HMS Vengeance, if given the chance: what's the point in being Evil Overlord if you don't have any weapons of mass destruction?.

[ Link ] [Discuss Evil Overlords]

posted at: 20:50 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 28 Oct 2003

Gadgetitis redux

Well, last week my Treo 600 arrived. It's a great phone -- but when your phone sprouts a QWERTY keyboard for text messaging and email it helps if the space bar works. Mine didn't, and the phone's new enough to have confused Orange -- in the end they escallated the issue to the desk of someone with "manager" in their title, and a replacement (with working space bar) turned up this morning, so I'm reasonably happy, but it shows that new gadgets can display new and unprecedented failure modes. Thing is, a phone with a non-working spacebar is still perfectly functional as a phone -- but not as a mobile internet/email terminal.

Anyway, all that should be sorted out by tomorrow (I just have to charge up the new phone, swap SIM and SD/MMC cards, and send the old one back).

Coincidentally, today my Alphasmart Dana Wireless arrived. It's the 21st century Cambridge Z88 replacement, and it appears to work okay; right now it's plugged in and charging up. One annoying nit is that the software that comes with it expects to be installed from a Mac or Windows system, and I'd prefer to use it with Linux. This wouldn't be a problem if they'd packaged the stuff in old-fashioned zip archives, but as most modern users wouldn't know a zip archive if it bit them (or so the current opinion runs in marketing circles) they come in fancy installer executables. Which means I need to mug a friend with an XP box before I can install things like Documents to Go on it and get motoring.

The payoff I'm looking for with all this new kit is a machine for writing on and a machine for keeping in touch with the universe, both able to run for many, many hours while a long way away from an electrical outlet, anywhere in the world. Oh, and they should weigh less than half as much as a laptop and (equally importantly) cost less than half as much as a laptop to replace if they break. I am fed up with expensive, excessively delicate machines that require you to schlepp around a briefcase full of support equipment if you want to use them for more than a couple of hours. It's interesting to note that both of my chosen pieces of gear run PalmOS, while none of the more conventional operating systems seem to cater to these needs, which I'd have thought would fill an obvious niche.

(Oh yeah. Weight of Dana plus Treo 600: 1.13Kg. Weight of iBook plus spare battery: 2.56Kg, and that's before you add in the mobile phone. Even if you leave out the spare battery, the iBook is more than twice as heavy!)

[ Discuss toys ]

posted at: 14:20 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 21 Oct 2003


So, the Handspring Treo 600 turned up yesterday afternoon. Today, I unplugged it from the charger, phoned Orange, and got it activated. Then I remembered to phone Orange and ask for GPRS to be activated too. Then I had fun beaming my contacts across to it from my Palm. Then I fidgetted with it, figuring out how to use it as a phone. And as a phone it is, indeed, pretty awesome. And then I discovered ...

The space bar doesn't work.

The Treo 600 has a QWERTY-layout keyboard (okay, thumbboard) for typing email and SMS messages. And it works fine -- all except the space key, which appears to be catatonic or not wired up or something. Sigh. So I'm now waiting for Orange to get back in touch about shipping me a replacement, which they said they'll do once they can beat their computer system into compliance. And I am suffering from an acute attack of gadgetitis, an inflammation of the gadget-fondling organs, because the Treo 600 is quite clearly an extremely cool piece of mobile communications kit ... if only it could send and receive email or text messages with spaces between the words.

Meanwhile, back to work ...

posted at: 16:03 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 07 Oct 2003

Ooh, shiny!

Sony just announced the PSX. Want.

posted at: 16:22 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 10 Sep 2003


Orange are apparently getting ready to launch the Treo 600 as early as next week according to The Register.

pic of Treo 600 In case you're wondering, the Treo 600 is the tri-band smartphone from Treo -- the company founded by the guys who founded Palm, and which was recently re-acquired by Palm earlier this year -- that promises to deliver what the Palm Tungsten W doesn't, quite. It's a tri-band GSM/GPRS phone. It does infrared and USB, has a Handspring-compatible interface (meaning: it will probably talk to the Think Outside folding keyboards Real Soon), a 144MHz StrongARM processor and 32Mb of RAM, a 640x480 digital camera, and runs PalmOS 5.0. It's way more powerful than the Tungsten W, works anywhere in the world, and has only one drawback I can see -- the 160x160 screen. I really need the 320x320 screen of the Tungsten C or newer Palm machines to do proper amounts of word processing (that is, editing files as well as simply writing first-draft copy), but even without an external keyboard this machine is going to be close enough to my ideal all-in-one system that, well, I'm going to be at the head of the queue.

pic of Ericsson T39m My current phone is an Ericsson T39m -- a nice, tiny, triband mobile with GSM/GPRS and bluetooth and IR, but none of the more fancy modern features. I've been carrying it for nearly two years now and it has it's shortcomings: it's crap for texting and if I want to use the internet with it I have a headache. It means carrying the Tungsten C and XP Keyboard around and lining everything up on the IR port just so (the Tungsten C doesn't do Bluetooth). While the Tungsten C is a powerful enough computer that I can leave the laptop at home on long trips, it still means carrying three gadgets around instead of one. Whereas the Treo 600 isn't quite as powerful, but should do fine for checking the email, texting folks, making notes, being a PDA, and (if/when the XP Keyboard comes out for it) banging out text.

I've been taken in by the conventional wisdom for some time now, that mobile phones would eat the PDA market. But the Treo 600 makes it look like the reverse could be true. Jack the screen res up to the 320x480 of the newest PalmOS machines, add Bluetooth/WiFi/VoIP and some level of hardware expansion (at least to support external input devices like a folding keyboard), and this kind of PDA is going to eat the sub-notebook PC market's lunch, and the feature-rich mobile phone.

[ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]

posted at: 19:25 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 17 Aug 2003

Extreme wrist-watches

I do not wear a wrist watch. Maybe it's because I'm surrounded by timepieces -- I virtually never go out the house with less computing power on my person than the entire North American continent circa 1973 -- and maybe it's because I find wearing things around my wrist irritating.

But if I did wear a watch I'd probably end up buying a new one every few months from Tokyoflash, just for the sheer pleasure of owning another gizmo. Some of these are just crazy, a classic illustration of the way in which a core need (timekeeping) has spawned an entire design subculture.

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posted at: 23:08 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 12 Aug 2003

A mirror made of wood

wooden mirror

It's a mirror, made of wood. (A 35x29 grid of wooden blocks controlled by servos, each able to be tilted 30 degrees up or down to reflect the light. A camera hidden in the middle sends digitized images to a Macintosh Quadra 860AV which digitizes the image, renders it down to 35x29, converts to 8-bit grayscale, and uses the grayscale values to adjust the tilt angle of each block to change the brightness. Fifteen frames per second provide the illusion of continuity.)

[ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]

posted at: 14:17 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 06 Aug 2003

One for the review stack

Treepad Lite is a combination PIM, outline processor, text editor and brainstorming program. Now there's a Linux version. Must take a look at it one of these days ...

(The Portege 2000 is now happily running Linux and, modulo one or two slightly rough edges -- wireless network roaming is a mild pain, and I haven't set up infrared yet or done any serious dinking with USB -- it's working fine. So I now have a Linux/Intel testbed again.)

[ Link ]

posted at: 22:37 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 05 Aug 2003

He's b-a-a-c-k ...

Nearly twenty years after the spectacular flop of Sir Clive Sinclair's C5 electric vehicle, it seems the "success" of the Segway (yeah, have you seen one, too?) has provoked the Cambridge inventor to make a follow-on attempt.

The Sinclair C6, we are informed, has been under development for a decade -- and we should "just wait til next year".


[ Link ][ Discuss toys ]

posted at: 17:40 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 01 Aug 2003

Why I'm being quiet

This week it's the UKUUG (UK Unix User's Group) annual Linux conference. And as it's in Edinburgh, where I happen to live, I'm a wee bit busy spending all my time in the grounds of a public (read: very private indeed) school, sitting in on talks by such luminaries of the linux field as Jon "Maddog" Hall and Dr Steven Tweedie.

Except the weather today is great, I'm a bit tired, and after one talk too many about the woes of the UK Government's e-gateway's mis-implementation of W3C standard digital signatures on XML messages I just had to bugger off home to recover.

Maybe I'll post a brief report tomorrow, but I'm not Cory Doctorow and I just don't have the energy for moblogging.

[ Link ]

posted at: 17:06 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 08 May 2003

Signs we're living in a different century

I've been a bit tired today; had to spend the first part of the week playing catch-up with a months' neglected feature writing (after knocking out draft 1.0 of "Glasshouse"), and now I think I've got a combined case of (a) a mild summer cold, (b) cognitive whiplash from no longer being elbow-deep in something new and obsessive, and (c) up-front exhaustion whenever I contemplate the 200,000 word doorstep I have to write by December. But still ...

This is not the twentieth century any more.

I just picked up a 256Mb compact flash card for £41, including international delivery. That's 25 times the size of my first hard disk, for almost exactly a tenth the price.

While writing up my trip to the Media Lab for Computer Shopper I stumbled headfirst into a moment of epiphany: because I hadn't realised that one of the goals of the Center for Bits and Atom's Fab Lab project is to make it self-replicating -- sufficiently comprehensive that if you have access to one of the compact toolkits you'll be able to make duplicates of it. In other words it's a cargo-cult Von Neumann machine, and they're working on it today, about seven years ahead of where I placed it in Lobsters.

And the first blind people with with retinal prostheses have been reported to be showing good results. (This means quite a bit to me -- both my retinas are dodgy, in different ways, and I might be needing at least one of these gadgets within the next couple of decades.)

The twenty-first century: it's not all about recessions, terrorism, and megalomaniacal presidents.

[ Discuss singularity ]

posted at: 20:02 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 17 Apr 2003

Back from the future

One of the disadvantages of living on the ground floor of a tenement flat in Edinburgh is that the radio reception, to be blunt, sucks. I used to listen to a fair bit of radio, but for the past eight or nine years it hasn't really been practical -- short of running a cable up the outside of a four story building and paying someone who (unlike me) isn't afraid of heights to install an aerial, any attempt to listen to the radio tended to induce a wince.

However, one nice thing about living in the UK is that the BBC is really keen on new technology, and in particular on DAB -- digital audio broadcasting. DAB is a new standard for radio developed by the Eureka 147 committee and now being rolled out in a number of countries -- the UK is one of the leaders, with about 80% coverage and ten commercial networks, as well as the full range of BBC channels. It seems like only about three or four years ago the BBC were announcing their first trials of DAB, but now there's at least as much available via DAB as via FM, and the reception and sound quality is much better. Of course, until recently a DAB receiver would set you back the thick end of six or seven hundred pounds -- but in about the past six months that's changed, thanks to a small UK-based computer and wireless networking company called Imagination Technologies, who set up a subsidiary (Pure Digital) to build cheap DAB receivers.

(If you live in the USA, you'll have to hold your breath until you turn blue in the face -- existing US FM broadcasters have put the boot in because they don't want any competition, and the nearest thing to DAB you're going to get is a poor quality in-band digital signal to carry channel information. It's a bit like GSM mobile phones, all over again -- the rest of the world goes one way, while the US gets a technically inferior, expensive, locally developed substitute that's incompatible with everyone else.)

I've just acquired a Pure Digital Evoke-1 Elgar radio, and it's really cool. CD quality sound, without even extending the aerial, indoors (and that's indoors with foot-thick stone walls, not wood or brick). And best of all: I can get BBC World Service without hogging the bandwidth on the cable modem.

[ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]

posted at: 15:42 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 21 Mar 2003

Dog Bites Robot

Researchers at Sony's AI lab in Paris attempted to get an AIBO to pass the canine equivalent of a Turing test. It succeeded, and was soundly bitten for its temerity in approaching the dog's food bowl ...

We are conducting a series of exploratory studies on animal robot interactions in collaboration with the ethology group of the University of Eotvos (Hungary). The purpose of these experiments is to investigate, from an ethological point of view, how much dogs see AIBO as a conspecific. The questions adressed are: what is the influence on the dog's reactions of movement, smell, presence or absence of eyes, sounds, etc.

Two kinds of situations are tested. In the first one, puppies and adult dogs interact freely with the robot. In the second one, we organise a situation of implicit competition in which the dog has to defend a piece of meat against the arrival of the robot. Comparative studies are done with a remote control car and a real puppy. The results are being analysed and will be published in the near future.

... The horrible screams that you hear at the end of this film were made by the experimenters, who were startled to see the dog attack the AIBO.

This was the first time that the AIBO was attacked, but it was not the last. During the course of the experiment, the AIBO was sometimes knocked over, bitten and chewed. It is still in perfect working order, and shows no visible signs of damage.

Nevertheless, we strongly advise you not to try anything similar with your AIBO. AIBO is strongly built, but it contains many delicate components that could be easily damaged. Your warranty will not cover you if AIBO is damaged in this way.

(Warning: horribly slow site! Apparently it's been boingboinged.)

[ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]

posted at: 17:37 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

The speed of sound underwater ...

... Is about 3000 kilometres per hour. Which is why this report on a supercavitating projectile test (in a flow chamber, not the open ocean -- it's an experiment, see) that broke the sound barrier underwater is rather significant.

Supercavitation is the big new thing in torpedo and submarine design; the Russians are already offering for sale the Shkval-E underwater rocket, an unguided torpedo that runs at upwards of 200 knots, but much more exotic stuff is on the horizon. (There's a longer and more accessible summary here.) One fun implication is that sonobuoys will not be effective at detecting supersonic torpedoes aimed at carriers. Another is that a torpedo swimming at mach one can cover ten kilometres in about eight seconds -- not much time for defenders to take action. Is this going to mean the early demise of those honking great aircraft carriers the US Navy (and Tony Blair) are so fond of?

More alarmingly, it suggests the possibility of building something not a million miles away from an underwater equivalent of Project Pluto -- fast, nuclear-powered, devastating, and as completely immune to a space-based anti-ballistic missile system as only a submarine "flying" at mach two half a kilometre under the ocean can be. Which would probably be an incredibly unlikely technological development, except the combination of the Bush doctrine (unilateralism) with the development of space-based weapons, and the fact that 70% of the planet's human population live within a hundred kilometres of the sea, makes it kind of inevitable.

Ain't progress wonderful scary? (<strangelove>Mein fuhrer, I can walk!</strangelove>.)

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posted at: 17:21 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 28 Feb 2003

Open arse surgery and Lovecraftian horrors

From the whimsy department -- Feorag's been at it again: this time, a demonstration of open arse surgery on Great Cthulhu. If your horror from beyond spacetime breaks his wing-bone, here's how to make him better again.

[ Link ] [ Discuss pomo ]

posted at: 11:46 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 27 Feb 2003

I'll take mine with milk, no sugar, thanks

This is just too bizarre to be a joke: a USB-powered electric teacup from the Dreams Come True Co., Ltd, of Japan.

(No, I don't want one. Apart from being a great way to drain a laptop battery in about five milliseconds and probably burn out your powered USB hub transformer, it's far too small -- and says nothing about Linux compatability, either. And now whenever someone says their PC's cup-holder is broken we'll have to check the USB bus as well as the CDROM drive ...)

[ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]

posted at: 15:07 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 31 Jan 2003

The skeleton iBook

An extremely cute DIY project for totally remodelling your Apple iBook. Needless to say I'm not doing it -- just extended by warranty by 2 years -- but I still think it's cool.

[ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]

posted at: 22:36 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 20 Jan 2003

Nixie tube digital clocks

This is just so cool.

Nixie tube clock

[ Link ] [ Discuss toys ]

posted at: 20:18 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
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"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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