Filed under “Technology”

February 18, 2014

Idea: A new automatic setting for cameras

There’s a rule of thumb for long lenses and shutter speeds: to handhold a camera without noticeable motion blur, your shutter speed should be no slower than the inverse of your focal length. So for a 50mm lens, you can safely handhold at 1/50 of a second or faster. If you have a long telephoto, like say a 200mm lens, you shouldn’t try to handhold at slower than 1/200 of a second.

But what if you’re using a zoom lens, and your focal length varies from one shot to another as you capture wide shots and close-ups to tell the story of whatever you’re shooting? Wouldn’t it be great if your camera had a setting to automatically adjust your shutter speed (and appropriately your aperture to maintain exposure) when you zoom so your tight shots are still nice and sharp?

You already have an aperture priority mode that adjusts your shutter speed if you change the aperture, and a shutter priority mode that does the opposite. So why not add focal length to the automatic equation, too?

It will not be useful in all situations, of course. In dim light, your lens might not be able to open up enough to compensate for the loss of light when the shutter speed increases as you zoom. But in other situations, this setting could be just the thing that keeps you taking sharp photos instead of smeary messes.

October 8, 2013

I wrote it, you made it: A Spoiler Tag

Well that was fast. On Thursday I proposed a new standard HTML tag for redacting spoilers. It could be customized with an expiration date (for things that don’t need to be redacted long term) and had some other features I’d like to see.

Well, it’s not an HTML standard yet, but Google Engineer Michael Ashbridge did come up with a way for people to add this feature to their own websites using Google’s Polymer library.

Check out his demo to see what his implementation looks like and how you can use it.

Awesome. Now do any of my readers have a contact at the W3C?

October 3, 2013

Idea: A Spoiler Tag

I think HTML needs a <spoiler> tag. Compliant browsers would automatically redact anything contained within it.

For further granularity, you could have support for <spoiler kind=”XXX”> where XXX might be “Breaking Bad” or “US Open” or “Cheers Final Episode” or whatever. Then when you visit a page, your browser would note at the top: “Warning: This page contains spoilers for Breaking Bad, US Open, and Cheers Final Episode” with an option to redact some or all of those things.

Your browser could remember your preferences across websites, so if you chose to redact spoilers where kind=”Breaking Bad” on one site, that will be the default behavior on other sites until you turn it off in the spoilers preferences, which keep a running list of spoiler kinds you’ve encountered.

September 10, 2013

Idea: Content-Sensitive Transcription Formatting

We all know that WHEN SOMEONE TYPES IN ALL-CAPS it’s interpreted as shouting. So why shouldn’t it work the other way, too? Now that everyone has devices capable of transcription in their pockets, maybe we can work on making transcription easier by using vocal tones for formatting cues.

IF I SHOUT A SENTENCE INTO MY PHONE, IT SHOULD BE TRANSCRIBED IN ALL CAPS.

If I only shout one word of a sentence, it should be italicized, especially if it’s an adverb.

Someone must be working on more seamless formatting of transcription, right? Nuance, the company which makes the speech recognition engine behind Siri, has a feature in their own software that they call Natural Punctuation, but even that’s limited to just automatic periods and commas.

Could we have a setting that automatically interprets upspeak as an indication to end a sentence with a question mark?

What other kinds of formatting could be managed easily by changing your inflection rather than your content?

July 3, 2013

Douglas Engelbart (1925-2013)

I’m sad to learn that Douglas Engelbart, father of the computer mouse, passed away today. I spent an afternoon with him and his wife Karen in 2009 photographing him at home and work as part of my inventor portraits project. He was charming, even flirted with my assistant. I will have more thoughts to share, but for now here are a few photos from my shoot with him.

June 12, 2013

Idea: Person-based reminders

[Perhaps this already exists for jailbroken or Android phones; someone tell me if it does.]

It’s great that I can get location-based reminders. But how am I supposed to remember that thing I keep meaning to tell my wife, who I see in a variety of places? Or the question I keep meaning to ask my friend the next time I see him?

I’d like a reminders app that will remind me of those kinds of agenda items 30 seconds after I come in close proximity to a person, regardless of where we are.

That should be doable, right? (Obviously assuming they have a compatible location-aware device on them with permissions set to allow proximity awareness, etc.) Perhaps Apple could add it to Reminders, hooking into Find My Friends permissions.

April 22, 2013

Idea: A Router Emergency Switch

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, I saw a lot of tweets calling for businesses in the area to open up their Wi-Fi so people can contact their loved ones during a period where cell phone networks were so congested that calls and texts couldn’t go through. I wondered whether a business owner — or whatever employee happens to be around that day — would even know how to open their Wi-Fi in a crisis.

So what if business-class routers included a Router Emergency Switch? It could be implemented either as a big red physical button on the router itself, or an easy-to-find software trigger. In a crisis, it’s an easy way to open your network.

I know what you’re thinking: if it’s that easy to open the router, isn’t there potential for abuse? Couldn’t it be triggered in non-emergency settings? Not if it’s done right. When you set up your router for the first time, you would also set up the Emergency settings. Heres an example of what a typical setup might do when the Emergency Switch is pulled:

1) Create a new Wi-Fi Guest Network so your own network is still secure.

2) Change the Wi-Fi Guest Network name to “USE THIS NETWORK DURING EMERGENCY” or something similar so people know it’s available.

3) Automatically bring people who access that network to a portal page with links to local and national news websites, local and national emergency websites, popular webmail sites, and maybe some first aid tips or other similar information.

4) Optionally open access to the entire internet, or just to specific sites to use during an emergency, depending on how trusting/paranoid the business owner is.

5) E-mail the business owner to alert him or her that the emergency switch has been activated.

6) Automatically turn off the guest network after a preset time period (perhaps a week?) in case the business owner forgets.

It seems like there’s only a very slim chance you’d ever need to use this. The odds of your business being within Wi-Fi signal’s reach of a catastrophe seem pretty low. So maybe this is the sort of thing that doesn’t have enough payoff to make the trouble worthwhile. But in that rare instance, it could end up being useful.

April 18, 2013

Cell Phone Inventor Marty Cooper

Cell phone inventor Marty Cooper has a lot of interesting thoughts about cell phones and related technologies. It was tough distilling our 40 minute conversation into such a short video, but I’m pleased with how it turned out. This month marks the 40th anniversary of the first ever cell phone call, which he describes in the video below. Enjoy!

See more episodes of my PBS INVENTORS series here!

March 22, 2013

More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About My Mac

Tech blogger Shawn Blanc asked me to contribute to his long-running series of Sweet Mac Setups by describing my hardware/software for his readers. I happily obliged in pornographic detail. So if you’ve ever wondered (as I’m sure you no doubt have) just what kind of computer I use, and what software I use, and why I still burn files on optical media, and how many plants are near my desk, and what my favorite iPhone calendar app is, and what’s on each of my hard drives, then here’s your chance to read all about My Sweet Mac Setup.

February 20, 2013

The Gutenberg Eyebrow

There’s a story being told around the internet this week about a 15th Century manuscript which was recently found to have paw prints across two pages from a cat that must have walked across it while the ink was still fresh. I’m reminded of a little-known story about another 15th Century book that was found to have evidence of its creation embedded in the pages: a Gutenberg Bible.

A complete edition of the Gutenberg Bible is very rare. Only a couple dozen are still known to exist (the Morgan Library in Manhattan is hogging three of them). But some copies were broken up and sold piecemeal over the years, so individual pages are not as rare and are occasionally sold at auction.

About 14 years ago, while I was a photographer at Christie’s auction house, a particularly interesting Gutenberg Bible page came up for sale. While it was being prepared for auction, someone noticed a tiny hair resting on the page. Upon closer inspection, it was found to have become dislodged from where it was embedded beneath the ink. There was a clear line left behind on the page from where the hair had lifted the ink when it became dislodged.

This meant that the hair had been there since the ink was put on the page.

What if it was Johann Gutenberg’s hair? Could you imagine what that would mean for the value of this page? More likely, we guessed it belonged to someone who worked for him, or perhaps even an animal that was hanging around the printing press. But still, it was an incredible find.

I recall that the hair was delicately handled so that it could be analyzed.

This is how it was eventually described at auction:

Eyebrow hair, 12 mm, COMPLETE with bulb at one end and natural taper at the other, blond or white, [middle of the 15th century]. Soiled with printer’s ink over a segment approximately 2 mm in length.

Provenance: The present hair was formerly adhered to the surface of this leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, where it was held to the paper by the printing ink. It lay under the ink when the leaf was received by Christie’s and was inadvertently dislodged in the course of cataloguing for this sale. The impression left by the hair in the surface of the paper is clearly visible at II Cor. 7:10, as is the furrow of white across the first letter “t” of the word tristitia, where the ink which lay over the hair came off with it.

The hair must have dropped onto the forme after it was inked and before the page was printed. It is therefore presumably a body hair, probably an eybrow hair, from one of the pressmen in Gutenberg’s shop — conceivably from the master himself.

The estimate for the page including eyebrow hair was $10,000 - $15,000. The final price was $64,625.

February 11, 2013

Idea: Someone should start a tumblr.

[This post is part of an idea dump.]

Someone should start a tumblr that’s nothing but quotes from people saying that someone should start a tumblr. It should look something like this: someoneshouldstarta.tumblr.com

That reminds me. I started a tumblr of pictures of Showrunners On Couches. Please send me submissions.

February 7, 2013

Inventor Portrait: Esther Takeuchi

One issue I’m conscious of in my Inventor Portraits series is that it’s not very gender balanced. Of the forty-something inventors I’ve photographed and interviewed so far, only eight are women. There have been other women under consideration, but in an effort to keep the inventions varied, I’ve passed on some that were too similar. I can only have so many women who invent products for the closet, baby room, or kitchen before it begins to give the impression that women only come up with domestic inventions. Those kinds of inventions are certainly important and useful, but my project strives to be broader in its subject matter.

So when I reached out to Esther Takeuchi, a chemical engineer whose life-saving developments in batteries for implantable medical devices have saved millions of lives, I was delighted that she said yes. She’s a terrific role model for women in science, and yet she expresses her own frustrations with exclusion in her field.

Note: If you like these videos, it would mean a great deal if you subscribe to the YouTube channel and/or share them with other people who might find them interesting. Thanks so much.

March 6, 2012

Inventor Portrait: Ralph Baer, video game inventor, who turns 90 years old this week

[cross-posted from my photography blog]

Ralph Baer, the father of video games, turns 90 years old on Thursday. One of his early inventions, the Magnavox Odyssey, was the first home video game system. It turns 40 years old this year. I photographed and interviewed Ralph over the summer for my ongoing Inventor Portraits Project, and this seemed like a good time to share some of the video in which we discuss, among other things, why he’s still inventing at 90 years old.

At one point in our interview he expressed frustration that modern kids don’t read anymore because they’re too busy playing with their smartphones. So I asked him if he thinks kids play too many video games today. Did he accidentally unleash a monster with his invention? His answer:

Yeah. I did a bit. What I thought I unleashed was a family game. If you’ll stop to consider for a second, what’s the ping pong game? You can’t play ping pong with yourself. It was meant to be played by two people. And we had four-handed ping pong and hockey games early on, also. I always thought of it as a family game. And it just sort of degenerated into a one player type thing which was never in my mind.

I thought that was interesting. I think I see a pendulum swinging back in Baer’s direction with consoles like the Nintendo Wii, which put an emphasis on group play.

Anyway, Happy 90th Birthday, Ralph!

January 30, 2012

Idea: Add Thsrs to a Twitter App

Back in 2008 I launched Thsrs, an online Thesaurus that only returns synonyms shorter than your search query. It was intended for Twitter users who are having trouble staying under 140 characters. It’s still used frequently by a small group of people — a typical busy day sees a few hundred lookups — and I hear from copy editors who tell me how useful it is when they’re trying to write headlines. But I haven’t really done much with it since the launch.

In the meantime, a lot of Twitter apps have emerged with competing features and styles. But as far as I know, nobody has integrated a similar feature in their product. It would be a great tool to have while you’re actually composing a tweet.

So I’m putting this idea out there for any Twitter client who wants to use it, but I’m specifically looking at you, Tweetbot. Add Thsrs to your app so that while I’m in the middle of writing a tweet, I can just highlight the term, tap “Thsrs…” (or whatever you want to call it in your implementation), and get a list of synonyms shorter than the word I’ve highlighted.

I don’t actually know if the iOS API allows for custom features in the copy/paste/etc popup dialogue. But if it doesn’t, I’m sure you can find some other clever way of integrating it. Maybe a Thsrs button on the compose screen next to all those other gear/tag/camera/etc icons?

December 15, 2011

#DearInventor

I recently discovered that a lot of people use Twitter to write brief open letters to unnamed inventors. They usually are expressing extreme love or extreme hatred for something. Occasionally they are even addressed to the imaginary inventor of something completely intangible like power naps or emotions.

The more I looked into it, the more amusing I found it. So I thought I’d share. Here is a round-up of tweets from the past week addressed to inventors, grouped roughly into categories.


Clothes

[This space unintentionally left blank. There’s a bug somewhere I need to squash. Just scroll down to the content for now. Thanks.]


Chap-Stick


Education

Heat


Food


Technology


Childcare


Intangibles


Medical


Other

June 8, 2011

Idea: .ugh Top Level Domain

How about a TLD for websites that can only be parody, complainy, or snarky? If you want to know about Lady Gaga’s next album, you can go to ladygaga.com, but if you’re really sick of her and want a community of like-minded haters, you can visit ladygaga.ugh and get it out of your system.

I know what you’re thinking: This won’t work because Lady Gaga will snatch up her .ugh before anyone else does. Well, that’s what’s unique about the .ugh TLD. If you snatched ladygaga.com, she could take you to domain name court to get it back. But the rules of .ugh will state that you can do the opposite. Nobody can own the same trademark and .ugh domain. If they do, you can take them to domain name court to snatch the domain and put up a snarky website the way ICANN intended.

This protects brands, also, because they needn’t worry about anyone confusing the .ugh parody site with their own .com site. Everyone will know that comcast.ugh isn’t really Comcast’s website.

I call dibs on uggs.ugh.

May 16, 2011

Idea: Useless QR Codes

You’ve probably noticed QR codes in ads, real estate listings, and band fliers around your town. They look like broken checkerboards or crossword puzzles, with black squares and white squares placed seemingly at random. The idea is that you’ll use your phone’s camera to scan the QR code, and reveal a URL, phone number, or message about the advertiser.

At SXSW this year, I noticed that they were everywhere. Surfaces were covered with fliers and stickers that all featured QR codes. People wore t-shirts promoting their company on the front, with a big QR code on the back. Did people actually bother to scan the QR codes with their phones? I have no idea. But I wished I had the forethought to bring my own fliers or stickers with totally useless QR codes to post hidden among the noise.

So I’ve come up with some useless QR codes just right for stickers and fliers. Maybe you’ll have an opportunity to use them before I do.

You can scan these with your phone (try an app like RedLaser for iPhone or Android) to reveal the messages the way other people will see them. Or, hover your mouse over the code for a second to reveal the encoded message.

Order this sticker here.

Order this sticker here

Order this sticker here

Also available on apparel.

Of course, you don’t have to use my useless QR codes. Make your own useless QR codes and bring them to your next convention, expo, or other gathering.

April 11, 2011

Steven Sasson, Inventor of the Digital Camera

[cross-posted from my too-infrequently-updated photography blog]

It’s been way too long since I’ve posted one of these. This is my portrait of Steven Sasson, inventor of the digital camera. He was the 32nd inventor in my project. I shot him in October at Kodak’s headquarters in Rochester, just a couple weeks before President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Technology.

When he initially mentioned that the first digital camera held 30 pictures, I assumed that was due to the storage capacity of the digital tape. It was really interesting to hear that he picked 30 as an artificial limitation, and his explanation why.

Here are a couple photos from our shoot, as seen in the video:

April 5, 2011

Idea: A New ‘Save’ Icon

I’m not the first person to suggest replacing the prevalent 3.5” floppy disk save icon. A quick Google search comes up with several discussions on the topic including a lengthy reddit thread with more than 700 comments.

3.5” floppy disks have been out of use for so many years that I wonder if younger computer users even know what that icon is supposed to be. Here is how it appears in the current version of Microsoft Word for OSX:

Not only don’t people use floppy disks anymore, but the options for saving are even more varied now than simple disk format. You might save to your own computer, or a drive on a server somewhere off in the cloud. You might even be using a program that autosaves in certain intervals without you needing to think about it. Even with a program like that, it would still be nice to know how long its been since the last save.

So then the question is, What do we use instead?

Here’s what I propose: instead of thinking of a file as being saved, think of your file as being in one of two states: it’s in danger, or it’s safe. And I can’t think of any icon to better represent being safe than home plate:

Maybe it’s because baseball season just started, but I think this is a good idea. Let’s think about how home plate could be used:

The “safe” icon is pointy on one end like an arrow. This can be used to indicate where your file is saved. If the latest version of your file is saved locally, it points down. If the latest version of your file is saved on a server somewhere, it points up.

Home plate on a baseball field gets progressively dirtier as the game goes on. When it’s too dirty to easily see, the umpire brushes it off. Similarly, the “safe” icon can get progressively dirtier the longer you go between pressing it. At a glance, you can tell if your file is safe or in danger. And if you go too long without pressing it to clean it off, a little animated sweeping brush appears to get your attention. Even if you’re using a program that auto-saves, the dirt metaphor can still tell you at a glance roughly how long its been since the last save.

For bonus fun, every time you press it you can pretend you’re an umpire and shout, “Safe!” That’s way more fun than pressing a floppy disk.

If this catches on, then no longer will people ask if the file is “saved”, and no longer will anyone have to wonder what that little icon is supposed to be. We can just look at the home plate icon and ask, Is it safe?

Update: Well, it didn’t take very long for people to point out the big flaw with this idea: much of the world doesn’t have baseball and has no idea what home plate is. Woops. But I still like some of the basic premises here. It’s a simple icon that tells you at a glance whether your file is saved locally or remotely, and whether your current revisions have been saved. And it still lets you push the button to update the saved file. So it’s not perfect, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. Sorry about the oversight, rest-of-the-world.

Update 2: Now that both John and Marco have weighed in, I guess I should acknowledge that I understand they’re both right. I’m not so backwards as to think we’ll be manually saving things for much longer, and sure, the best solution to the floppy disk icon issue might just be to wait it out until it’s obsolete. But I still like my idea and urge it to be adopted by anyone writing software for Americans who are baseball fans without internet access or a modern operating system.

January 10, 2011

Idea: The fab key.

The fab key

Macintosh keyboards are typeset in VAG Rounded, a font which happens to have very similar “t” and “f” letterforms. Except for the curve of the “f” they are identical.

The word “tab” on the keyboard is really small. The tallest letter — “b” — is only 3 millimeters tall. Unless you get your eyes really close to the key, it can be hard to see the details of the individual letters.

So I propose that someone should sell novelty replacement keycaps that say “fab” instead of “tab.” It’s pretty easy to swap out keycaps, and you could do it yourself at home in minutes.

Why? Because working at a computer can get monotonous and boring, and this would give you a little secret that only you know, and you could giggle about it in your head every time you press it. Sure, someone else might notice your fab key, but they probably wouldn’t because the letters are so small. And if they do notice, you’ll become known as the person with the quirky keyboard that says “fab” and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

But maybe you don’t have a Mac, and your tab key has the more common capital “T” that doesn’t resemble an “F” at all. Well, then get a fab key for a Mac-using friend. They make excellent gifts for Beatles fans, people who work at Farnborough Airport, those in the Bolivian Air Force (Fuerza Aérea Boliviana), or anyone named Fabrizio.

January 3, 2011

Idea: Crowdfund a mission to put a monolith on the moon

The goal: Erect a monolith on the moon. (See 2001 for reference).

Is there an upper limit to the amount of money you can raise on Kickstarter? Because I guesstimate this project will require about half a billion dollars. So I only need to find 5 million geeks-like-me worldwide who think this is a cool enough idea to donate 100 bucks. That seems pretty doable, especially considering Kickstarter’s rule that nobody has to pay anything if I can’t raise all the money I need, so people can donate with confidence. But maybe my estimate is way off. Here’s my thinking:

Through the power of Google, I found a few estimates on what it would take to get to the moon. They ranged widely. In 2005, a private company estimated that they could send you on a roundtrip fly-by for $100 million, and another private company figured they could land on the moon for $10 billion. My idea doesn’t have to be a manned mission, but it does need to actually land on the moon and erect a monolith. It only has to be a one-way trip, though, which should keep it relatively cheap.

Last year, a kid and his dad in Brooklyn sent their cell phone into space and back on a shoestring budget. Okay, so the moon is about 3,272 times further than the edge of space, but it’s still inspiring.

Nobody would crowdfund a trip to send someone else to the moon, because there’s no incentive. Why should I pay a hundred bucks for you to go to the moon? Why do you get to be the lucky one? But this project is something nerdy folks worldwide could get behind. It’s space exploration and development through private enterprise, and a tribute to great sci-fi. And we can all enjoy the process and the result. Also: Everyone who donates gets a Monolith Project sticker.

So what would be involved in such a project? I have no idea where to begin, except that I know it would cost a lot of money. The money raised would probably be used for engineering, fuel, permits, design, mission control staff, supplies, tools, rent for a place to physically build the thing, other fees and salaries, etc. I’d probably need to start with a project manager, someone to oversee everything. In fact, maybe a lot of the work needs to be done before the fundraising just to figure out how much the whole thing would cost. Maybe I need to have a kickstarter project just to raise the research and development money to figure out how much money I would need for the main project.

Maybe this project should piggyback with some other entity that’s already sending a ship to the moon. Surely there’s a government or private group planning a moon trip that has room for a monolith on board in exchange for some money, right? Maybe that would make this idea less expensive.

What would the design of the monolith be? Aside from having 1:4:9 dimensions, how big should it be? I guess it should be hollow so that it’s light and requires less fuel to carry. I can envision a few monolith designs that pack up flat for transport. Some consideration should be given to how it will be erected. Will it drop down on a parachute and land in one piece? Will it land in a ball and inflate upon landing? Will it require robots to go down and assemble it?

What do you think? If a monolith-on-the-moon project were to be crowdfunded, how would it work? What would need to be considered? What would be the most efficient and effective way to get a monolith on the moon?

Could mankind put a monolith on the moon through micropayments?

Update: A commenter reminds me that parachutes won’t work on the moon because there’s no atmosphere, and I confess that I feel stupid for that oversight. But other than that, this plan should totally work.

Related: Idea: A skyscraper in Tokyo shaped like Godzilla

November 16, 2010

Idea: The uncanny valley as a plot element

I’ve been thinking the past few days about the uncanny valley in animation. I think it could be used as a plot element in a movie. Through some bit of sci-fi magic, an all-CGI character exists in our real world, but nobody accepts him because there’s something just not right about him. He exists in the uncanny valley and so everyone has a bit of revulsion or discomfort about him.

But that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I’m not sure what kind of story would best make use of this idea. How does a CGI character live in our world? Is it a ToonTown kind of thing, where animated characters have always lived among us, and he’s the first CGI character to be born? Or is it magic? I don’t like the idea of magic in a story like this. I think it should either be sci-fi somehow, or just left unexplained.

Maybe it’s a variation on the Pinocchio story. Somehow an old man uses a computer and some unexplained plot device to create a CGI son. But the boy isn’t accepted by the other kids because he’s all CGI.

Or perhaps it’s a variation on the Frankenstein story. A scientist figures out a way to bring a CGI character to life, and the townspeople are so repulsed by this character stuck in the uncanny valley that they turn on him and hunt him down with pitchforks and torches.

Maybe a computer-savvy high school kid figures out a way to bring his online avatar into our world, but now that avatar is stuck here and has to try to fit in. But being in the uncanny valley, nobody can accept him as the new kid in school, and he remains an outsider. Oh, and there’s a love triangle.

It might work best in a short film, where you could get away with having an unexplained bit of magic more easily than you could in a feature. And it would cost less, since the main character needs to be fully computer animated, which could be pricey.

Also, it should be called “CG, I.”

June 24, 2010

The Best 3-D Experience I Ever Had

I still own two film cameras. One is a Mamiya medium format camera. The other is a 1950 Stereo Realist 35mm 3-D camera. I’ve been creating and consuming 3-D content since I was young, using every technique I could learn about, including some that most people have never seen. I’m a proponent of 3-D movies in theory, but am disappointed with most of the movies I’ve seen in the format’s current resurgence. I have so many thoughts on the matter — including why I’m fascinated by 3-D, where I’d like to see it go from here, and what I think of Roger Ebert’s (and others’) anti-3-D stance — that I’ve considered purging them all in one giant post. This is not that post.

This post is just about the single best 3-D entertainment experience I ever had. I enjoyed it in the comfort of my own home, and it didn’t cost very much money. After watching the home video game console companies show off their 3-D games at last week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, I thought I’d write about it, because my best 3-D experience was with 3-D gaming.

Ten years ago, I purchased a pair of Elsa Revelator 3-D Glasses for the PC. It cost me $34. The glasses connected to the computer with a thin wire that ran to a pass-through plug between the graphics card and the monitor. Combined with special software, it could turn any existing hardware-accelerated game into a true 3D experience using active shutter technology.

A quick definition of active shutter technology: an liquid crystal lens over each eye flickers between clear and opaque in sync with images onscreen that are rendered slightly offset for each eye. As long as the monitor refreshes quickly enough, the flicker is not noticeable, although the screen appears a bit dim. Since each eye only sees images rendered for one perspective, the brain perceives the image as 3-D.

The first game I played in 3-D was Tomb Raider (natch). The border of my monitor suddenly became a window, and I was looking into Lara Croft’s world. She became a fully rounded Barbie-sized figure running around a tiny landscape, firing at enemies. It was amazing. There were some glitches with the technology — occasional flashes of light when the glasses would lose sync with the monitor, and odd 3-D artifacts where ripples in a pond were supposed to refract light — but I could see the potential in 3-D gaming already.

The glasses came packaged with a demo version of a game I’d never heard of called “Thief 2.” This was the game that blew me away.

Unlike Tomb Raider, where you see your character on screen, Thief 2 is played in first person perspective. Your character is a thief and, unlike most other games, you don’t just run around shooting enemies as quickly as you can. The idea is to be sneaky. You hide in the shadows, avoid being seen, and creep around villages and castles to complete each level.

I sat in front of the computer with 3-D glasses on and room lights off. I wore headphones for total immersion, and the game used sound to great effect. My character’s footsteps were often the only sounds I heard as I snuck around the virtual landscape. But if I listened carefully, I could hear when a guard was coming so I could make sure I wouldn’t be caught. In 3-D, the hallways and streets had depth. Buildings had form. It really felt like I was there, sneaking around. It felt almost real.

Here’s a sample of gameplay:

I purchased the full version of the game and played it from start to finish over the next couple weeks. I’m not that much of a gamer, but I’d never had a gaming experience that made my heart race so much, that really transported me into the game world. I’ve played virtual reality games with headgear-mounted goggles and motion tracking, but this was so much better.

I still remember clearly a level late in the game where I had to walk across a rafter high above the ground. When I looked down, I could actually see the distance I would fall to the floor below if I slipped. In 2-D, the thin beam of wood I was standing on would have been on the same plane as everything else on the screen. But this felt like a real beam of wood high above a real floor. I’d never been so nervous playing a game as I was in that moment.

I wanted to tell everyone to get these glasses. Why on Earth would anyone play games the old flat way? This is how games should be played! This should be mainstream! Why weren’t the video game consoles of the time making games that would work with the same technology?

The answer, in part, is that standard televisions didn’t have a high enough refresh rate to make the experience worthwhile. A slower refresh rate makes the flickering of active shutter glasses noticeable, which is very unpleasant. So 3-D games in home consoles would have to wait.

And now they’re coming. New TVs have high refresh rates, and console makers are taking advantage of that. The 3-D glasses no longer need to be tethered by a thin wire. They stay in sync wirelessly. But now that the technology has caught up, I’m not so sure everyone else will have the same amazing experience I had.

When I played Thief 2, I was a bachelor living by myself. I could turn out the lights, sit a couple feet from the screen, and totally immerse myself in the game without anyone caring. I think that’s a big reason why I was so sucked in. With a game console, the TV often sits on the other side of the living room, rather than right in front of your face. At that distance, the depth is a cool effect, but not an all-encompassing experience (unless it’s a very large TV).

I predict that people will respond to 3-D games in a segmented way depending on their circumstances. People who play alone without worrying about being antisocial will become immersed in first person shooters; they will be transported into the world of the game. People who play more socially or further from the screen will benefit from 3-D in a more subtle way; their experience will be similar to getting a new game console that can render graphics more realistically. It will be a cool special effect, but not a whole new way of experiencing a game. With the high cost of today’s wireless 3-D glasses, and the reluctance people may have to sit around wearing dark glasses indoors, I’m not optimistic that 3-D games will be huge any time soon outside the “bachelor” demographic.

Ten years after my experience with Thief 2, I still think of it as a benchmark for what 3-D gaming can be. But perhaps someone will come up with some new and unexpected use of 3-D in video games that will make me realize that Thief 2 was just a beginning, and that my experience ten years ago was the tip of the iceberg.

(I’m excited to see what’s offered for Nintendo’s upcoming 3-D glasses-free handheld console. I suspect that the 3-D screen is too small to really immerse you like I was with Thief 2, but is small enough that it could be used as an effective window into another world. The device is only experienced by one person at a time by design, and I think all these factors could inspire some very creative game experiences.)

Incidentally, while the Elsa Revelator glasses are no longer available, nVidia does sell a similar product (although it’s unfortunately more expensive). But if you’re a PC gamer, I highly recommend you give them a try.

May 12, 2010

Meet Brent Farley

Do you remember the father in the movie Gremlins? His name was Randall Peltzer, and he was a struggling inventor, constantly trying to find success with his latest inventions. He gave his products names like The Bathroom Buddy, and The Peltzer Juicer. He was full of ideas, and built his own prototypes, but never quite found success.

Brent Farley is a real-life inventor in the spirit of Randall Peltzer. I visited him recently as part of my ongoing photo documentary project about contemporary inventors, and put together this video portrait (I recommend watching full-screen):

May 6, 2010

Idea: Put a dishwasher in the bedroom

I don’t know if it’s true for every dishwasher, but mine makes the most soothing sounds. The humming machinery, revolving spray-arms, and trickling water combine to make a churning rhythm that must trigger some subconscious memory of being in the womb. All I know is that I’ve never had a dishwasher that was so relaxing.

It makes different sounds in different stages of the wash. Sometimes it’s mostly white noise. Sometimes it sounds like a babbling brook. Sometimes it’s constant, and sometimes it has rhythm like a mother’s hearbeat. But all of it is blissful.

So how about installing one in the bedroom? If I could hear the dishwasher from my bed, I think I would sleep most soundly. And I’d be more likely to actually remember to run the dishwasher.

Of course it would be a hassle to load and unload a dishwasher in the bedroom. And I don’t have enough dirty dishes to run it every night. So I guess I would settle for a white noise sound machine with a Dishwasher setting. I’ve never liked those machines — the tinny speakers don’t sound at all like the real thing — but as long as they’ve already got settings for Ocean, Summer Night, and Rain Forest, how hard could it be to add Dishwasher? I’d have to hook it up to a speaker system with bass to get the really low churning sounds that are so satisfying.

Here’s a small soundbite of one cycle:








Aaaaaahh.

April 21, 2010

Idea: eBooks that watch you read

Every device is an eReader these days. Some are dedicated e-ink devices, and some are multipurpose gadgets that have (or will soon have) front-facing cameras. Presumably those cameras are intended for video chat. But as long as the cameras are there, I think eReader software should take advantage of those cameras, too.

Using existing face detection technology, here are some things your eReader could do:

Gather analytics data: Movie studios do test screenings where they gauge how much audiences laugh or cry, and at what point in the movie. Books can’t do that. But what if the book were watching you? It could anonymously (with your consent) send data back to the publisher about where you were in the book when you smiled. This could be good feedback for the author, who would learn which jokes were hits and which were misses.

Dynamically change text size: Instead of setting your preferred font size, you can set your preferred apparent font size. As you move your head closer and further away from the page, the font adjusts accordingly. (Although I can’t come up with a real reason why I would use this feature).

Automatic page scrolling: With eye-tracking, the device could see when you’re reaching the bottom of the page, and scroll accordingly.

Advertising fodder: Imagine an ad for Stephen King’s new book: it’s a photo grid of real people’s faces while they’re engrossed in the pivotal and terrifying chapter where something really gruesome happens. Perhaps the eBook takes the photo without telling you, and it’s saved locally on your device. At the end of the book you get the opportunity to submit it, and you get some cash and a free copy of his next book if they use your photo to advertise this one.

Special edition of 1984: Every time you get to a page with the phrase “Big Brother,” the camera takes a photo of you and posts it on-line.

UPDATE: Well, it didn’t take long for someone to point out in the comments that Wired has already covered this territory. Hrm. I guess I’ll do some more research before I post my other related idea: eye-tracking high dynamic range photos that adjust the exposure according to the part of the image you’re looking at.

Previously: Idea: Fun With Facial Recognition

March 31, 2010

Idea: A new kind of volume control

A few weeks ago, I thought to myself, “Hey, someone should make a volume control that doesn’t go from ‘quiet’ to ‘loud’ but instead adjusts the audio from ‘whisper’ to ‘shout’.”

That lead to, “Maybe I can actually build that. It could be funny.”

Then I thought, “I should use the new HTML5 <audio> element. It’s timely. And it’s a good chance for me to learn how it works.”

Then I thought, “But what should I use as the audio sample? I know, I’ll use a recording of myself reciting ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb,’ as homage to Thomas Edison. Because what I’m doing is clearly as revolutionary as what he did.”

Next thing I knew, I was recording myself shouting ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb,’ wondering if the neighbors could hear me, and feeling rather silly. The more I worked on it, the more absurd the whole idea seemed.

But I got it working. Sort of. It only works in Firefox. So,with apologies to people who don’t use Firefox, or aren’t willing to fire it up just for a laugh, here is my revolutionary new audio player that adjusts the volume from “whisper” to “shout”:

(the image is a link to the actual player, which gets its own page)

See also: Garrett Morris

March 2, 2010

Idea: The Email Abstract Field

Sometimes I write too-long emails. Before I hit send, it occasionally occurs to me that if I got an email that long I would probably dread reading it. But there are times when a long email is necessary. For example, sometimes you need to tell a company every detail of how awful your experience with their product was before you ask for a refund. Or you need to explain to your boss how much money and resources your company is wasting by not recycling before you pitch your idea to help the environment and the bottom line.

If they can only get through my first nine paragraphs, they’ll get to the part where where you explain why you’re writing.

When I find myself in this situation, I sometimes start the email with the heading: “Short Version:” and then a brief abstract. I give more detail than I could in the subject line, but I still keep it to just a few sentences. I say why I’m writing and what I want from the person I’m writing to.

The I write “Long Version:” and fill in all the gory details in as many paragraphs as I need.

For example, my subject line might say: “I had a terrible time at your hotel.”

The abstract might say: “I stayed at your hotel from January 3-7, 2010 in room 227. It was one awful day after another, the room was filthy, and I think the maid stole my watch. I would like a refund. More details below.”

And then the body would give my long tale of woe about how everything went wrong from the moment I arrived to the moment I checked out. I don’t have to worry that I buried the lede in the last paragraph.

Which gets me to my point: As the occasional recipient of rambling emails, I think this feature should be automatic in email programs. It could be a sometimes-hidden field like the bcc: field is in many email programs, or perhaps a popup abstract field could be triggered when you hit “Send” on an email beyond a certain length. It’s probably too late to make a new field standard in all email, but maybe Google can put it in their Gmail Labs for people like me.

February 23, 2010

They Don’t Make Computer Manuals Like They Used To

My family’s first computer was a Franklin Ace 1000. I think we got it in 1983. Franklin Ace computers were clones of Apple II computers, which eventually prompted a lawsuit from Apple and a court ruling that operating systems can be protected by copyright. The computers may have been clones, but the Franklin manuals were definitely original.

I recently found copies of manuals for the Franklin Ace 1000 and its predecessor the Ace 100. They were similar computers, so the manuals share a lot of content in common. Both are pretty incredible.

For example, the manual for the Franklin Ace 100 begins with about 40 pages of computer basics (What are they? What can they do? etc). And then, on page 40, two thirds of the way down the page, there is a chapter heading called “The Ancestral Territorial Imperatives of the Trumpeter Swan.” Here’s how the chapter begins:

I like how low-tech the manual is. The whole thing is done in a Courier typeface, with chapter headings in all-caps. Here’s how the same chapter heading appeared in the manual for the later Franklin Ace 1000:

You can see that this manual is more designed. There are friendlier fonts. There are cute cartoons of Benjamin Franklin throughout. But some of the written humor is lost. Gone is the reference to a “disgustingly cute phrase.” The chapter heading is cushioned with “A good title for this section might be…” This version of the joke is a bit too on-the-nose for me.

But the Ace 1000 manual isn’t just a watered down version of the Ace 100 manual. It has its own jokes, including several humorous glossary entries. For example, the first chapter of the manual lists things you can do with a computer, including “get a list of recommendations for wines to serve with Terrine Maison.” In the glossary, you’ll find Terrine Maison helpfully defined between entries for source and utility program:

Reading through the Ace 100 manual, I came across a section so shocking that I can’t imagine a modern computer company even considering putting it in a manual. In this section, you are advised to circumvent copy protection to make personal backups of programs you lawfully purchased:

And it still hasn’t happened.

The Ace 100 manual goes on to describe three categories of crooks in the computer world. The first category is “Them,” the computer salespeople who overhype their products with advertising gimmicks. The second category is “You.” Franklin isn’t actually calling you a crook, but they say that software manufacturers will treat you like one:

The last category of crooks is “US”:

Well they weren’t, technically, until the court ruling.

Most of the “Crooks” section is omitted from the Ace 1000 manual. A condensed version still appears in the section about copy protection.

Both manuals make 80s pop culture references, explaining the concept of computer programs by comparing them to TV programs like Hill Street Blues, The Dukes of Hazzard, or Live at the Met with Itzhak Perlman (who the glossary helpfully defines as “a violinist”). Former Good Morning America host David Hartman is described as “nothing but reconfigured electronic signals [you watch] over coffee in the morning.”

In both manuals, the author tries to explain what kinds of programs are useful and which to stay away from. He states that “the sole purpose of many of these wonders in programming is to separate you from your money.” And then he gives this warning:

This strikes me as a reference to Damon Runyon, whose stories of 1930s New York hustlers were the basis for the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls. Damon Runyon wrote, “One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to come up to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the Jack of Spades jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not bet this man, for as sure as you are standing there, you are going to end up with an earful of cider.”

I wondered what other inside jokes the manual has that I wouldn’t know about. The manuals are uncredited, but I figured out that they were written by a guy named Sal Manetta, who later went on to work for Unisys and Intel. He is now retired. I couldn’t reach him, but I did get hold of Bob Applegate, a programmer who was at Franklin at the time.

Bob wrote:

We hired this tech writer guy who knew nothing about personal computers named Sal Manetta. He was the manager of the Publication group. Sal hired a funky artist [Frank someone-or-other] who did most of the drawings of Ben Franklin in the user manual. Sal was supposed to learn about computers like an average person back then, such as reading magazines, talking to salesmen at stores, etc. Sometimes Dave and I would head over to a local place where I used to work (where Franklin discovered me), would “introduce” ourselves to Sal and give him advice on buying his first computer, much to the annoyance of the sales staff there. Sal would get back to the office and tell us what the sales folks said about us once Dave and I left :)

Bob mentioned that many of the cartoons are based on real events and people Sal encountered at Franklin. Here are some of the cartoons along with Bob’s comments:

“Engineering was in a long, narrow building with no windows, nicknamed ‘the cave’. Sal was never exposed to engineers before Franklin, and we sometimes overwhelmed him. He often said ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter’ to people on their first visit to our building.”

“Look for the one of the boy soldering with an evil looking computer… that’s me… I wore Converse sneakers to work back then; look at the star on the side of his sneaker.”

“The computer salesman speaking BASIC code was my old boss at a local computer store.”

“The guy smoking a cigarette and dumping ashes onto the computer is a repair guy from the same local store.”

And where did the trumpeter swans come from?

“The ‘Territorial Imperatives of the Trumpeter Swan’ was also real. Resumes came pouring into Franklin, and we’d all look through them. One guy had written a research paper with that crazy title, and we all thought it was pretty interesting. So, Sal worked it into the manual as a chapter title.”

After Franklin lost their lawsuit with Apple, they continued to sell computers that were similar to Apple’s, but without any infringing code. I found the manual for one of those computers, the Franklin Ace 500. Sadly, there is nothing creative to be found within. It reads like stereo instructions. I was disappointed to see there’s even a chapter with the disgustingly cute name “Getting Started.”

Want to read the manuals in full? Here they are:

Franklin Ace 100 (PDF) - via
Franklin Ace 1000 (PDF) - via
Franklin Ace 500 (PDF) - via

That last “via” link also has the original Apple II manuals, for comparison.

Update 3/21/10: Sal has weighed in, leaving a lengthy comment here

December 2, 2009

The Bulbdial Clock is now available!

I’m very excited to announce that the Bulbdial Clock I envisioned almost two years ago is now available in time for the holiday season!

The geniuses at the Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories have done all the hard work to make the Bulbdial Clock available as a kit that you can put together yourself with just basic soldering skills*, or give to a loved one for the holidays. Check out their blog for an article about the kit, showcasing some of its features.

Then head on over to the ordering page for information on availability, styles, accessories, and prices. Here are some of the other styles:

*If you’re not sure you have basic soldering skills, visit this page to learn what tools and knowledge are recommended for assembling this type of kit. There are a few YouTube videos you might find helpful, too. This one covers basic soldering technique, and this short clip demonstrates soldering a component to a printed circuit board like the Bulbdial Clock.

November 12, 2009

Inventor portrait gallery on Time.com

Time.com just published their 2009 list of the 50 Best Inventions of the Year. When you check out this year’s list, don’t overlook this box:

inventor gallery

The gallery features nine of the 25 inventors I’ve photographed so far as part of an ongoing personal project.

October 19, 2009

Forensic Reconstruction of Famous Skulls of Fiction

I recently saw an amazing example of forensic reconstruction. A skull had been found, but police were unable to figure out the person’s identity. So a forensic artist examined the skull and created an illustration of what the person may have looked like while alive. When the person was finally identified, photos of the person looked strikingly similar to the artist’s rendition.

This got me thinking: What would a forensic reconstructionist make of some famous skulls of fiction? There are characters in film, television, and video games who we’ve only ever seen as talking skulls. Surely they couldn’t have grown to adult size without once being flesh and blood, right? So what did they look like?

To answer the question, I’ve enlisted the help of an amateur forensic reconstructionist (okay, it was my wife, who never did any forensic reconstruction before but can draw better than I can). Provided with three images of fictional skulls, here are the results:

1. Skeletor

2. Manuel Calavera

3. Jack Skellington

August 3, 2009

The Google Voice Speed Dial Bookmarklet Generator

NOTE: See update at bottom of entry for instructions on converting your whole Address Book to bookmarklets at once.

Apology in advance: If you don’t have an iPhone and Google Voice, this entry will have limited appeal. Unfortunately, iPhones are pricey and not everyone’s cup of tea. But the good news is that Google Voice is free.

Those of you who follow tech news know that there’s been quite a dust-up recently over Google Voice apps on the iPhone. First they were allowed, but now they’re banned. So until they work things out, or Google comes up with a more elegant web-based solution, placing a call using Google Voice on the iPhone is a long and drawn-out process.

I think I’ve come up with a simpler way.

I’ve put together a web app at http://www.ironicsans.com/gv that generates bookmarklets for anyone you want to call with Google Voice, allowing you to organize your contacts as Safari bookmarks. You can arrange them in folders, and then dialing from your bookmarks is as simple as dialing from your normal Contacts app: just tap to dial!

Setting up the first phone number takes a few more steps than I’d like, but after that the rest are easy. Maybe you won’t want to take the trouble to add everyone from your Address Book, but it’s easy to set up a “Google Voice Faves” folder with all your most-called people.

I haven’t tested this on other people’s phones, but it works for me so I’ll cross my fingers and hope that it works for you. Let me know if you have success with it. I’m a javascript amateur, so I welcome tips for improvement.

Just point your iPhone to ironicsans.com/gv to get started.

NOTE: No phone numbers or any other information are sent to my server. All the magic happens on your end. And this is in no way affiliated with or endorsed by Google.

Update: See also this Python script (with instructions for use) submitted by a reader in the comments that will take all of your Address Book contacts and convert them to bookmarklet links in an html file. You can import those links to your Safari bookmarks and then sync with the iPhone. I have not yet tested this. I had to make one small fix (it swapped the phone numbers around), but it works!

July 30, 2009

Idea: The Smiley as AP Copy Protection

The Associated Press has an ongoing problem with misappropriation of AP articles. Facts are not copyrightable, but the AP says they find entire articles reprinted by websites that aren’t licensed to publish AP stories.

So the AP made a confusing announcement this week, outlining a new approach in protecting its content. To some, the AP seemed to be suggesting they could actually prevent people from copying their articles the way DRM can prevent copying of movies and music. But it was pointed out that copying text is pretty trivial, so this sort of “DRM for text” is not possible.

But what if there were something low-tech the AP could include in its articles that actually made a difference? It won’t physically prevent copying, but it just might deter it.

There was quite a buzz in the news a few years ago when a Newcastle University research team discovered that people are more honest when eyes are watching them, even if the eyes are fake.

At the time, psychologists said, “It does raise the possibility that you could get people to behave more cooperatively… by putting up pictures of eyes,” and, “It would be interesting to know how one can apply these sorts of findings more generally in organisational structures and in society in general to maximise upon honourable and altruistic behaviour.”

In the original test, a photocopy of eyes placed above an “honesty box” in a canteen made people more likely to pay when taking a drink. If a mere photocopy will make people honest, maybe a more abstracted set of eyes can still have an effect. I propose an experiment.

This is how the AP currently formats its datelines:

NEW YORK (AP) — A judge ruled Thursday…

I propose a small change:

NEW YORK (AP) ÓÒ — A judge ruled Thursday…

Yes, that’s right. I’m suggesting that the AP begin putting a little face in all their datelines. It’s the Smiley as copy protection. The AP could come up with their own set of ascii eyes, brand it, and include it in every dateline from now on. They could even pretend it has some other official function, like it symbolizes the AP keeping its eyes out for news. But people would see it and know what it means: “This is an AP article. Please don’t steal it unless you would do so even with your own mother watching.”

Then, when wayward bloggers prepare to copy and paste an AP article, they will be faced by those staring eyes. Maybe they’ll think twice. Maybe they won’t even know why. And then, when they choose to summarize the facts of the article instead of copying and pasting it, the smiley as copy protection will have done its job.

July 16, 2009

Inventors Tom and Jerry

Some of you know that I’ve been working on an ongoing photography project about inventors. Recently I began experimenting with video to supplement the photos, and I’m pretty pleased with how it’s going. I set up a couple web pages showcasing two particular inventors to show some people in my photography world what I’ve been doing, and I thought I’d share with all of you, too. These inventors are named Tom and Jerry, and you can click the images below to see more about them.

Incidentally, if you or someone you know is an inventor, please get in touch about possible participation in this project. I think I’m heading to Northern California next, so I’m particularly interested in inventors in that area.

Click here to see Jerry:

Click here to see Tom:

June 16, 2009

Idea: The Outlet Wall

Instead of hiding your outlets behind furniture and worrying about the mess of wires tangled behind your entertainment center, consider making an entire wall that’s nothing but outlets. Then you can artfully plug in your appliances wherever the cords look pleasing to you.

Imagine no more crowded outlets or multi-plug adapters.

Of course you don’t have to actually wire all the outlets on the whole wall for electricity, but you’d better come up with a good way to remember which ones are live.

Detail:

June 10, 2009

The Death of TV on the Radio

Note: This post is not about the band TV on the Radio.

This Friday, June 12, TV stations nationwide will cease broadcasting analog signals and switch to digital-only broadcasts. That’s fine with me. I have a digital television, and I have cable anyway, so it won’t affect me. At least that’s what I thought. Only recently did I realize that one of my favorite ways to enjoy television will go away. Starting Friday, I can no longer get TV on the radio.

As a kid in the 1980s, I enjoyed the same TV shows my friends did. But I also loved listening to old time radio shows, most of which I checked out from the library on vinyl records. I especially enjoyed comedies like Burns and Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, Abbot and Costello, Jack Benny, and the Great Gildersleeve. I couldn’t get enough Dragnet, or Dimension X. In my head, as I pictured whatever action was happening in the show, I also imagined the studio where it was recorded, the actors with their microphones, the audiences at the comedy shows, and the sound effects man simultaneously adding door slams and footsteps in real time. Theater of the mind was so great, I wished I could have been around when these shows were still on the air. The library only had a few episodes of each program. Why didn’t radio networks do this sort of thing anymore?

For my Bar Mitzvah, someone gave me a gift certificate to the Sharper Image. There were so many cool gadgets to choose from, I had trouble deciding. I considered the telephone in the shape of a bulldog whose mouth moved in sync with the person you were talking to. That would have been a riot. But then I saw the Sony Tap Tunes Shower Radio that received AM/FM and TV Audio. A radio that gets TV signals? I had to have it.

I didn’t use the radio in the shower as it was intended. Instead, I put it next to my bed. At night, I went to sleep listening to Johnny Carson or, if I stayed up late enough, David Letterman. During prime time, I could stay out in the living room and watch TV with my siblings, or I could retreat to my bedroom and listen to a sitcom while I did my homework (on those rare occasions when I did my homework). It’s true that some jokes or plot twists didn’t work without the visuals, but I could make sense of most shows. It was never my prime way of enjoying television, but it was a great supplement.

Years later, when I moved to New York, the radio came with me. I lived in a tiny apartment without a TV for the first couple years and the radio was the only way I was able to enjoy TV programs. When I took up running, I bought a walkman so I could listen to music while I exercise. I was pleased to discover a walkman model that received TV signals. I sometimes brought it to work and listened to Ed Koch on The People’s Court during my lunch break. (Unfortunately, daytime TV is just as bad without the visuals).

Today, that original Tap Tunes shower radio is still with me in my apartment. I’ve finally moved it to its intended destination, the bathroom, where it mostly plays the local NPR station while I shower. It’s rarely tuned to TV. But I also have a bedside alarm clock that gets TV audio, so I can still tune in at night. In the two weeks that Conan O’Brian has been hosting the Tonight Show, listening to him as I go to sleep has already become a tradition, and I only have a few days left to enjoy it before all my TV radios stop working.

Is there a future for TV on the radio? There are already so-called “HD” radios that receive digital broadcasts over AM and FM. Could they be expanded to receive TV audio as well? And if so, what kind of reception could I expect without needing a rooftop antenna just for my alarm clock radio?

This wi-fi clock radio by Aluratek may be my best compromise. It gets thousands of internet radio stations, and allows you to add your own, so I could listen to one of the streaming Old Time Radio stations found on-line and pretend that I live in the 1950s. But even with all the options that internet streaming provides, I’ll still miss the ability to listen to live TV on the radio.

Previously: Idea: “CSI: Drive Time”

May 6, 2009

Idea: Motion-detecting cell phone ringer

Sometimes it’s not appropriate to have my cell phone ringer on (like at the movies, for example), so I set the ringer to vibrate. It’s not a big deal if I forget to turn it back on right away because I keep my phone in my pocket, so I’ll feel the vibration when I get a call. But sometimes I come home and empty my pockets and forget to turn the ringer back on. I’ve missed calls because I didn’t hear the phone vibrate from across the room.

The phone has an accelerometer built in. So how about an optional setting for vibrate mode called “motion-sensing vibrate”? If it doesn’t detect any movement for, say, 15 minutes, it would automatically turn the ringer back on, and also make a noise if I missed a call in those 15 minutes so I know to check my messages.

Before automatically turning the ringer back on, it could vibrate steadily for 15 seconds as a warning indicator, just in case the phone is still in my pocket but I’ve somehow managed to stay perfectly still for the past 15 minutes (which seems unlikely to me). This would give me fair warning that the ringer is going to turn on so I can override it if needed.

Of course, if you keep your phone in a bag or purse, you would not want to use this setting.

April 27, 2009

Post-it Note inventor watches Sticky Note Experiments

I recently photographed Art Fry, the inventor of the Post-it Note, for an ongoing photo project I’m doing about inventors. After the shoot, I asked if he’d ever seen the Sticky Note Experiments video by Eepybird (the Mentos and Diet Coke guys). It turned out he hadn’t. Well, I just happened to bring a copy of the video with me on my iPhone so I could show it to him.

I filmed his reaction as he watched it:

If you haven’t already seen it, this is the video he was watching:

April 8, 2009

I wrote it, you made it: The Bulbdial Clock

Just about a year ago, I came up with a concept for a clock whose hands are shadows projected by bulbs shining on a center post. I called it the Bulbdial Clock, and my concept design looked like this:

Well, I’m thrilled to see that the evil mad scientists over at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories have actually built a working model! They posted lots of pictures, and it’s pretty awesome:

Head over to their site and see how they made it. They’re considering making a kit available so people can build their own Bulbdial Clocks. If you’d like to see that happen, let them know in the comments on their blog.

Update: Kits are now available! Visit EMSL for more info.

March 3, 2009

Top Thsrs Search Terms

Back in July, I launched Thsrs, the on-line thesaurus that only gives results shorter than the word you look up. I’m pleasantly surprised to see that people are really using Thsrs to help them compose shorter Twitter messages, write more concise headlines, etc. So I thought it would be interesting to check my logs and find out what the top search terms are on Thsrs. What words are people trying to shorten?

The Top 30 Thsrs Search Terms are:

thesaurus
explain
dictionary
hello
love
beautiful
awesome
computer
complicated
penis
sex
fantastic
happy
synonym
abbreviation
ironic
ridiculous
amazing
excellent
internet
word
exhilarating
encyclopedia
available
house
information
sesquipedalian
establishment
long
wonderful

A lot of those are pretty obvious search terms, the sort of thing someone types in just to test Thsrs. So let’s jump ahead in the list to, oh, number 500. At that point, these are the next 30 most popular search terms on Thsrs (all are tied with 6 lookups):

preposterous
kiss
accommodate
copulation
request
carnivorous
wonder
plethora
establish
husband
movement
find
appointment
silly
advantage
transport
terrible
like
uninterrupted
constantinople
recognize
mirror
explanation
discovery
immediately
criticize
exquisite
trustworthy
face
splendid

I love that there are 6 people who looked up Constantinople.

February 19, 2009

Idea: The Blogosphere Adventure Game

A couple years ago, I thought it would be fun to make an old school geeky Sierra-style adventure game using Adventure Game Studio. I got far enough to realize that it would take a lot more time (and probably skill) than I had to make it. But I did do some work sketching the game on paper in a spiral notebook which I happened to come across this week. I’ve scanned in some pages so I could show you the aborted adventure game I never made.

I hadn’t settled on a name for the game, but I thought about calling it “Blogosphere” or “Blogosfear” or “Blogosphear.” The opening animated narrative would introduce you to the protagonist “Dave” who was staying up late reading blogs instead of going to bed. Some sort of mishap (energy drink spilled on the computer?) was going to start a chain of events that digitally teleports him into the internet. The teleportation was going to look like Flynn being digitized in Tron.

So the gameplay begins with Dave finding himself materialized in a waiting room like one would find in a doctor’s office:

The only door, with a sign reading “Blogosphere,” is locked. But when Dave pulls a number from the “Take a Number” display, the receptionist’s window opens. The receptionist was to be played by Clippy the MS Office Paperclip, who has had to find other work since he’s no longer employed by Microsoft. Through witty interactive dialogue, Dave would protest that he doesn’t belong there and needs to get back home. Clippy would explain that once you’ve entered the blogosphere, the only way to cancel your account is to consult the Great and Powerful Eula. And this sets up your adventure to find Eula and learn how to get home. Clippy buzzes Dave through the door to start his adventure.

The next room is the BlingBling room:

This room has an airport-style metal detector which doesn’t allow anyone through to the blogosphere with anything in their pockets. The sign says “BlingBling: the Gateway to Wonderful Things.” The gateway is guarded by Cory Doctorno and Jenny Gardner. The walls are covered with banner ads for t-shirts. Dave turns over his belongings, which means he starts his adventure with nothing. Cory and Jenny explain that to find the Great and Powerful Eula, Dave should follow the Yellow Paved Road. He continues on his way.

The next screen reveals that the Yellow Paved Road isn’t very long. In fact, the Great and Powerful Eula’s place is right next door.

Eula is a big floating head, a la the Wizard of Oz, but I don’t remember why I gave him glasses. Anyway, he tells Dave that in order to get back home, he must bring Eula the broomstick (or something) of the Wiki Witch of the Web. That’s the real goal in the game.

This is a path away from Eula’s place. There’s a path to the right, but up ahead there’s a building in the distance that looks like it’s made out of giant forks.

It is made out of giant forks. It’s Fork.com.

Inside Fork.com you meet Drew Curtains. He sits on a throne of forks. He has chandeliers made out of forks. He’s kind of obsessed with forks. Somehow this would have figured into a puzzle.

Taking the other path would have brought you to this rundown shack. It’s Jason Tchochke’s place.

Inside, Tchochke’s place is full of shelves and shelves of various tchochkes. Somehow this would have figured into a puzzle.

Further along the path you would encounter the domain of the Wonkess. It’s supposed to be reminiscent of the White House.

Inside, the Wonkess sits at a desk in an oval office. I’m not sure exactly how, but somehow this would have figured into a puzzle.

Further still along the path lies a sign that says “Dig.” At first you can’t do anything here, but eventually you would find a shovel, and you could come back here to dig.

An animated cut scene would have simply shown you digging into the ground. It would either be visually similar to a scene from Dig Dug, or (as shown here) you would see the fossilized remains of video game characters buried in the ground.

Eventually you would break through to the underground lair of Kevin Rouse, wearing a backwards baseball cap and headphones. He was going to be a bit crazy, throwing piles of money in the air, since an article in BusinessGeek Magazine said he’s worth $60 million, so he took out a loan. In the background is the secret elevator that would take you back up to the grassy patch where you started digging.

This is PooTube. It’s a series of tubes. One of the tubes has a door on it. As you approach the door, a mechanic was going to pop out from behind a tube and tell you that you don’t want to go in there. He’s the character you interact with here. Not sure what he was going to say, though.

This is the entrance to Slashbot, a company that makes Robots for Nerds. There was going to be a puzzle that requires you to come here and retrieve an iPod that contains some secret information on its hard drive.

Inside, there would be nothing but empty cubicles as far as the eye can see. Nobody works here anymore because they’ve all been replaced by foreign workers. But one computer was left on to keep an eye on things. His name is CAL.

He has the iPod that you need, but he keeps it locked away in a special iPod bay. This is all a convoluted way of getting you to say, “Open the iPod bay door please, CAL.” And then he can say, “I’m sorry, Dave, but I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Elsewhere, you would come across the entrance to the Huff’n’Puff Post newspaper.

Inside the building’s art deco lobby would sit a security guard. Somehow there would be a puzzle you would need to solve in order to get past him, possibly posing as a bicycle messenger.

A lovely animated cut scene would show you going up in an elevator to the top of the building.

Eventually you would get to the office of Ariana Huff’n’Puff. But she speaks in such a thick accent that nobody understands a word she says, so her assistant is also her interpreter.

That’s about as far as I’d gotten. I had some ideas for what kinds of puzzles you’d actually have to do, and what the dialogue trees would be like, but I didn’t write any of that down. I did make a list, though, of websites and other things to lampoon in the game. I brainstormed what the parody names could be for real websites. This is what the list looked like:

February 12, 2009

Real Life Multitouch

Maybe this is a sign that I’ve been using my iPhone too much.

February 2, 2009

I wrote it, you made it: Histoface

The previous “I wrote it, you made it” posts have been examples of people who executed an idea I proposed. But this time I’m writing about people who took one of my ideas to another level altogether.

In September, 2007, I demonstrated how an image can be hidden in the histogram of another image. The example I used was the New York City skyline…

…hidden in the histogram of a simple gradient:

I followed that up by writing about Josh Millard, a reader who figured out how to embed the histogram in a more recognizable picture than just a gradient. He was able to embed the NYC skyline histogram in the original source image of the NYC skyline!

But I never wrote about what Stewart Smith did with this concept. He took the idea in a different direction, wondering if it would be possible to embed an actual word or phrase in the histogram of an image. So he developed Histoface, a web app that allows you to generate a gradient which contains a secret message in the histogram.

So this image…

…has this histogram:

It should be obvious that it says “STARWARS” but unfortunately not all the letters in the typeface are as easy to recognize as these. It’s difficult to create recognizable letters that work in a histogram. But I give Stew major credit for making it this good!

I’d love to see a combination of Stew’s project and Josh’s project, allowing you to type a message and hide it in the histogram of any grayscale image. Who wants to work on that?

December 10, 2008

Idea: Treadmill eBook Reader

Treadmills and other aerobic exercise machines are pretty sophisticated these days. The ones at my gym feature touch-sensitive computer screens that you can use to track your progress, watch TV, or even control your iPod.

But some people see the treadmill as a good place to get some reading done. I see them struggling to figure out how to place a book or magazine on the machine without it falling, and even with a Treadmill Book Holder, it can be awkward to turn the pages. Plus, you have to carry all that around with you when you’re done running but still want to work out. It looks like a pain.

So how about adding an eBook reader to the list of treadmill features? The touch-screen computer is already there, so it seems like a very simple feature to add. It can be preloaded with hundreds of public domain classics. Just tap the screen to turn the page. By issuing gym members a PIN number, the treadmills could keep track of what they’re reading and what page they left off on. It could even be an outlet for selling new books. And the gym could have deals with magazine and newspaper publishers to provide their content as well.

A full fledged web browser with all my RSS feeds would be too difficult to navigate while exercising, I think. But a simple eBook reader could be just right. They could call it the tREADmill.

November 24, 2008

60 Seconds in the Life of a Mold Injection Machine

Part 36 in an ongoing series of 60 Second Films.

A recent photo shoot brought me to a plastic mold injection factory where plastic doohickeys are made. Always a fan of machinery, I was fascinated by the process. Here’s how the magic happens:

Tiny plastic beads fill the big metal funnel. They are melted down and injected into the molds. Then the robot arm removes the plastic doohickey and the process begins again. Here’s a detail shot of tiny plastic beads waiting to be turned into doohickeys:

Hundreds of molds sit on shelves, ready to churn out anything from perfume bottle tops to sunglass display holders:

August 12, 2008

Idea: How I would do iPhone cut and paste

I know, I’m late to the party. The internet has already had plenty of discussions about the iPhone’s lack of cut and paste, and many proposals for how it could be implemented. Some people suggest complicated multitouch gestures, double-taps, or buttons with pop-up submenus you slide your finger over. Others change the iPhone’s default behavior too much. These aren’t intuitive to me. I want a solution that’s easy to use and doesn’t get in my way. It’s there when I need it, and it disappears when I don’t.

Now that I’ve had a chance to play with the iPhone for a while, I’ve come up with my own proposal. I don’t know how to make a working demo, so I’ve made some screenshots to help explain my concept. I think it feels natural, while being simple and unobtrusive.

Let’s start with some text so we have something to work with:

Holding your finger on a word currently brings up a Magnifying Glass that helps you place a cursor where you want it. My suggestion: Whenever you go into Magnify mode, the bottom row of the keyboard is replaced by one large “Hold to Select” button.

Using this button to select text should feel familiar because the action is the same as selecting text on a Macbook’s Trackpad. I normally use one hand with a Trackpad, but I find using two hands with the iPhone feels surprisingly natural because my thumb is already in a good position to press the button:

If you only move the cursor without pressing the “Hold to Select” button, the bottom row returns to normal when you let go. But if you do select text, then the “Hold to Select” button is replaced by four new buttons: Cut, Copy, Paste, and Cancel.

After you make your choice, the action is carried out and the bottom row returns to normal. I’ve selected “Cut” in this example.

When I’m ready to paste, I once again use the Magnifying Glass to place the cursor. The “Hold to Select” button comes up again but I’m not going to press it this time (although if you want to replace text, you can select a whole block of words to paste over).

If I I had nothing in my clipboard, then the bottom row would go back to normal when I release the Magnifying Glass since I didn’t select any text. But I do have something in the clipboard, so I my options are shown again.

I select “Paste” and the word in my clipboard is inserted at the cursor. The keyboard bottom row returns to normal.

In the preferences, I can decide when I want the clipboard to be cleared out. I think it makes sense to empty your clipboard every time you paste, but other options are useful in case you need to paste the same text multiple times.

This method of cut and paste also works with non-editable text where you don’t have a keyboard. If you want to copy text from Safari, for example, you hold your finger in one spot until the magnifying glass comes up. The “Hold to Select” button slides into place from below [animated gif], temporarily covering the navigation bar. Because the text is not editable, the paste and cut buttons will be inactive.

That’s the best cut/paste implementation I could think of. It doesn’t change the iPhone’s current behavior and it doesn’t get in the way. It’s clear and easy to use. What do you think?

July 30, 2008

Canada’s 1,968 foot wide movie

Forget IMAX with its puny 857 inch wide screen. I saw a move this weekend on a 23,622 inch screen. That’s 600 meters wide. More than a third of a mile. That’s also about how far back I stood to watch it.

Above is a photo of the Bunge Grain complex in Quebec City. The complex is made up of 81 individual silos 30 meters tall. In celebration of Quebec’s 400th Anniversary, artist Robert Lepage used the complex as a screen for an incredible site-specific motion picture called The Image Mill. The film tells the story of Quebec’s 400 years through video, pictures, and sound. I expected a cheesy patriotic movie. But what I saw was subtle and elegant.

The below video, which shows 10 minutes of the 40 minute film, gives a good idea of what the movie was like. It shows how Lepage made innovative use of the contours of the silos, turning them into bullets, candles, a printing press, cigarettes, etc, and how he turned the entire complex into other kinds of buildings completely, such as a factory and an airport.

You can also watch a behind-the-scenes video at Lepage’s website where he explains some of the technical issues that went into making the movie.

I would recommend that you fly to Quebec to see it, but unfortunately the movie’s 66-night run has just ended.

According to Lepage’s website, the movie is playing every night until August 24.

July 8, 2008

Idea: Thsrs, The Shorter Thesaurus

Popular new social networking services like Twitter, where users write extremely short messages about whatever’s on their minds, present a challenge: How can you intelligently get across a complex thought in just 140 characters without needing to use ugly abbreviations (e.g. “w/o needing 2 use ugly abbrev’s”)?

If only there were a service that helps with the struggle of rewriting a 146-letter message to fit in a 140 character limit. Well now there is: Thsrs, the thesaurus that only gives you synonyms shorter than the word you’re looking up. Just enter one of the longer words in your message, and Thsrs will suggest shorter words to use instead.

Try out the embedded version below, and bookmark www.thsrs.com so it’s always handy when you need it.*

Thsrs

1. Enter a long word.



2. Receive shorter synonyms.


* I considered calling it Sesquipedalian but I can never remember how to spell that. Thsrs was developed using the Big Huge Thesaurus API, and coding help from my friend Jay. This is a beta version, of course, so let me know if things go wrong.

Update: Thsrs is now available as a plug-in for your browser! Check out the Thsrs page for details.

Update: I thought I’d make a note about the word source, as some people have commented that Thsrs sometimes returns surprising results. Thsrs currently uses the Big Huge Thesaurus, which is based on the Princeton University WordNet Database, and has the distinction of being the only thesaurus I found with an API. If you know of a better easily-accessible Thesaurus word source, let me know and I’ll see about switching over. In the meantime, additions to the database can be suggested by visiting the BHT, looking up a word, and using the “Suggest” form at the bottom of the results page.

June 30, 2008

Idea: Electric Outlet 2.0

The Problem:


Let’s get rid of these things once and for all.
Here we are in the 21st Century, and we’re still using electric outlets designed way back in the early 20th Century. Back then, Alternating Current beat out Direct Current as the standard in our homes partly because it travels further before losing power. But our needs have changed since then. Sure, we still plug in a bunch of things that require AC, but we also have a few dozen items in each home that require DC. So each of those items has its own power-converting brick taking up precious space on our power strips, and creating eye-sores on our walls.

Some people have gotten around the problem by coming up with creative designs for power strips. But that’s backwards thinking because it just accepts that we have to deal with these bricks and puts a bandage on the problem. We can do better.

I say it’s high time we do away with the whole mess by moving the AC/DC conversion to the other side of the wall.

The Proposal

Today, if you lose an AC adapter, you have to find a new one that converts the AC in your wall to the proper voltage DC for that particular gadget. Or, you can buy a universal AC adapter for just a little more money that you can manually set to provide whatever voltage DC your gadget requires.

I propose a new standard for electric outlets where every outlet in your home has a universal adapter built in, on the other side of the wall, where you will never see it. When you need AC, it gives you AC. And when you need DC, it automatically converts to the proper voltage DC for you. No more ugly bricks. Plugging in your phone charger, computer speakers, or router will be as elegant as plugging in a lamp.

I call this new standard “Outlet 2.0.”

How will Outlet 2.0 know what kind of electricity you need?

Simple. Outlet 2.0 compliant plugs will have key-like notches in the prongs that let the outlet know what kind of electricity is needed. For example, a “Type A” plug will have zero notches. It looks like a standard plug, and it just uses normal AC. “Type B” plugs will have one notch to indicate that they require 1.5v DC. Here are a few sample plugs to illustrate what I mean:

They are given simple letter-based names so that it’s easy to remember in the event that you need to buy a replacement cord. You just look at the bottom of your gadget where it says “Requires Type G Cord” and go to Radio Shack and buy a Type G cord (at a fraction of the cost of buying a new brick). The letter is also embossed on the plug itself, so you don’t need to worry about mixing up your cords.

Won’t this increase the cost of electric outlets?

Yes. But you only need to install your outlets once. However you may otherwise buy a hundred gadgets over your lifetime that include their own transformer brick, and the cost of that brick is built into the price of the gadget. With no brick needed, the cost of the gadget goes down. Also, the weight of the new gadget in its box with all its accessories goes down, which makes it less expensive to ship, which translates to further savings.

What about power strips? How will they work?

Outlet 2.0 compliant power strips will be plugged in with a “Type A” plug so they receive AC as usual. But they will have internal universal converters at each of their outlets so they provide the proper electricity to the devices that are plugged in. Yes, this will make them slightly larger and more expensive. But the savings will come in less expensive devices, and a much neater area under your desk where everything is plugged in.

Is Outlet 2.0 backwards compatible?

Yes. Anything you have that came with a normal plug — including power bricks you got with gadgets before the Outlet 2.0 standard — will still work. They have a normal “Type A” plug, so they will receive the AC they’ve always received.

Will new 2.0 compliant plugs work in old 1.0 outlets?

Well, once the standard is adopted, it should be relatively inexpensive to replace at least some old outlets with new ones, so hopefully it won’t be an issue for long. You’ll start to see even older hotels begin to advertise that they have Outlet 2.0 compliant rooms. But if you are going to visit a home or hotel that hasn’t upgraded yet, you can bring a simple travel-size pass-through converter. You just plug it into any 1.0 outlet, and then you can plug any Outlet 2.0 compliant gadgets into the converter. (Note that any Outlet 2.0 compliant power strip will work properly in a 1.0 outlet, converting the power as needed).

What if a 2.0 plug is plugged into a 1.0 outlet without an adapter?

This could damage your gadget, so there is a feature in the Outlet 2.0 standard that prevents this from happening. It is not shown in the plug renderings above because I haven’t worked out the details yet. It will probably take the form of an extra prong that doesn’t carry electricity, placed off center so as not to be confused with the grounding prong already present on current “three-prong” plugs. At right is a rendering of how it may appear. This not only prevents you from sticking a 2.0 plug in a 1.0 outlet, but makes the different outlets easy to recognize by sight.

Will I have to upgrade my whole house to Outlet 2.0?

No. If you’ve had the lamp in the corner plugged into the same 1.0 outlet for the past 20 years, and you never plug anything else into it, there’s no need to upgrade that outlet. Just upgrade the outlets where you will benefit from having the Outlet 2.0 standard. If you ever sell the house, you may consider a full upgrade then so you can advertise that every room is Outlet 2.0 compliant.

Conclusion

For far too long, we’ve been dealing with heavy, unwieldy, ugly power conversion bricks all over the place, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. But I refuse to believe that a world that sends robots to Mars can’t figure out a way to solve this problem. So this is my proposal. Of course, I’m not an electric engineer, so I may be missing some of the finer issues. Let me know what you think, and tell me how this idea can be improved.

Update: There are few things more frustrating for me than discovering that one of my ideas has already been thought of. But in this case I’m pleased to find via the comments that a similar proposal is already being worked on called The Green Plug. It doesn’t appear that the Green Plug puts the converter on the wall side, but it does create something like the Outlet 2.0 Power Strip, so that all your devices can share the same DC converter. I fully support this.

June 10, 2008

Idea: A Bar in Silicon Valley

I once decided it would be a good idea to name a bar in San Antonio “The Basement” so tour guides at the Alamo actually have an answer when jokesters ask where the basement is. But it turns out there actually is a bar in San Antonio called The Basement. This time I’ve got a name for a bar that doesn’t seem to exist already as far as my Google Search can tell (I’m sure someone will tell me if I’m wrong). This bar would probably best be located in Silicon Valley:

The Progress Bar

May 1, 2008

Googlyi: An iGoogle Theme

[Update: Googlyi is now an officially listed theme on iGoogle.]

This week, Google debuted a new series of iGoogle themes created by “world-class artists and innovators.” Somehow they managed to miss me when they sent out invitations asking people to create a theme, but I decided to create my own theme anyway.

I present: Googlyi, an animated iGoogle theme.

That’s right. Not only does it change throughout the day, but those googly eyes watch you while you work and generally creep you out.

I’m going to submit it to Google for inclusion in their gallery, but in the meantime you can preview it here [update: use the official listing instead]. Let me know if anything doesn’t work for you throughout the day so I can fix it before I submit.

Note: I think you need to be signed in to Google to see the preview.

April 14, 2008

Video Store Clerk Game: A Crowd Wisdom Experiment

On-line movie recommendation systems (such as those at Amazon, Netflix, etc) are pretty good at guessing what movies you might like based on your movie history. Improvements to these systems are constantly being made, using ever more sophisticated algorithms. But how good are they compared to the wisdom of actual people? That’s what my friends Jay and Andy are trying to figure out. And they need your help.

Jay and Andy have created a game called Video Store Clerk in which you play a video store clerk. You are told how a real customer has rated previous movie rentals, and then you are shown another movie title that the person also rented. Can you guess how the customer rated that movie?

They are collecting all the user-generated data and comparing it to the real customers’ ratings. A computer has already played the game with millions of customers, and we know how well it did. The question is whether or not the wisdom of crowds can beat the computer. To gather enough data for an accurate comparison, they need a lot of people to play. So please, pass the link around. Digg it. Blog it. They tell me their server can handle the load.

The experiment’s findings will ultimately go toward building a better movie recommendation system. Hopefully you’ll find the game fun to play, too. And if you have any ideas about improving the game, you can leave a comment here or use the contact link on their site.

Link: Video Store Clerk

April 11, 2008

Idea: Tactile Feedback While Driving

Car companies are coming up with new ways of making sure you’re aware of other cars in your blind spots. Using radar and special mirrors, you will soon get audible and visual warnings when cars are approaching.

But what about tactile feedback? When I drive, my hands are already on the steering wheel, so why not take advantage of that to let me feel when a car is approaching in my blind spot?

The steering wheel could be embedded with a row of nubs that protrude under your hands when they need to alert you to another car’s presence. If a car is approaching in your blind spot on the right, the nubs raise under your right hand letting you feel the car’s presence. Likewise for the left side. And the wheel could detect where you place your hands while you drive, so if you don’t keep your hands at ten and two the nubs will be active wherever you do place your hands.

With practice, it could become second nature to use the sense of touch to gather information while you drive, just like you use sight and sound already.

March 25, 2008

Idea: The Wikroll

A Wikroll is when a person rudely interrupts an on-line conversation to provide a link that seems to have nothing to do with the topic at hand, claiming that it goes to the video for Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” But the link actually goes to a Wikipedia article that adds relevant insight to the discussion.

For example, lets say I write a blog post about macaroni which prompts discussion in the comments about the origins of macaroni and the best tasting brand of macaroni. Then someone leaves this comment:

Hey, everyone. I really like that Rick Astley song “Never Gonna Give You Up” so I thought I’d post a link to the video on YouTube so everyone can watch it. Click here to check it out: http://tinyurl.com/296l7r

Did you click on the link? Snap! You’ve been Wikroll’d!

March 17, 2008

Idea: The Bulbdial Clock

Update 12/4/09: In conjunction with Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, I’m pleased to announce that you can now buy a kit to actually build Bulbdial Clock! Visit the product page for more information.

I think we can all agree that sundials pretty much suck. They only have an hour hand, they don’t work at night or indoors, their accuracy changes with the seasons, and if you happen to live in the Southern hemisphere they run backwards. And yet, we all would love to be able to tell the time by looking at shadows, right?

That’s why I’ve come up with the Bulbdial Clock.

The Bulbdial Clock has no hands — just one pole in the center of the clock, and three light sources of varying heights which revolve around the pole casting shadows. In the model illustrated above, the light sources are each attached to a ring which rotates around the pole. The innermost ring rotates once per minute, casting a “second hand” shadow. The middle ring rotates once per hour, and casts the “minute hand” shadow. And the outer ring rotates once every 12 hours, casting the “little hand” shadow.

The Bulbdial Clock can be used flat like a traditional sundial, or mounted vertically on a wall. A variation on the design intended for large-scale installation (such as in a museum) involves a pole sticking up in the middle of a room, while the light sources are mounted on the ceiling, shining down on the pole as they rotate around it.

The Bulbdial Clock solves most of the sundial’s problems, but it still has a problem of its own: It doesn’t work in bright light. So the Bulbdial Clock is best suited for dim spaces such as restaurants and nightclubs.

Update: Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories has built a working model and posted several photos of the process. (4/7/09)

Previously: An Orange Clockwork

February 18, 2008

Idea: The last product Polaroid should make

You may have heard the recent announcement that Polaroid will stop making instant film soon. They’re manufacturing just enough to last through 2009, and then they’re shutting down the factories. That gives them almost two years to develop what I think should be the last Polaroid product: a digital picture frame that makes sure the familiar look of a Polaroid photo lives on.

You just put your memory card in a slot on the bottom of the frame, and navigate using the touch screen to select whether you want to view your photos in “Standard” mode, which functions like any other digital picture frame, or in “Classic” mode, where each photo slowly fades into view over the course of a minute or so while you watch and wonder what photo is coming up. (In Classic mode, you can try shaking the frame to make the photo fade into view more quickly, but it won’t really do anything).

If you’re the sort of person who prefers to pin your Polaroid pictures to your cork board in your cubicle, you can take advantage of this innovative feature: The stand on the back of the frame can rotate to an upward position, sticking up above the top of the frame and revealing a hole for you to stick a pushpin through. The rechargeable internal battery allows you to showcase your photos that way even if you don’t want a wire dangling down from your cork board.

The bottom portion of the frame features a dry erase surface, so you can write your own title for your slideshow by hand, using a dry erase marker. Because sometimes it’s nice to preserve at least a little bit of the old way of doing things.

Previously: Idea: The Digital Jewel Box

January 6, 2008

60 Seconds in the Life of a Humidifier

Part 31 in an ongoing series of (approximately) 60 second films.


I’m too humble a blogger to dedicate an entire post to the fact that the 2008 Bloggies are open for nominations until Friday, and that Ironic Sans would be an excellent choice in either the “best-kept secret weblog” or “best American weblog” categories. Luckily, I think quality content like this video really says all that for me.

December 27, 2007

Idea: The Gethuman Dialer Application

The website gethuman.com has created a database of phone numbers for every major company in 15 different categories (such as insurance, phone companies, banks, etc) with instructions on exactly what you need to do in order to navigate your way to a real live human. For example, if you need to talk to a live person at Priceline, the instructions say, “At prompt press 1; at prompt press 1; at prompt enter phone number #; at prompt enter phone number #; at prompt enter phone number #.”

But that still seems like an awful lot of work to get a human. Why doesn’t someone create an application that does all the work for me? Let me select what company I need to call, and then use my modem to call them and do all that number-pressing automatically. At the last step, play a sound so I know to pick up my phone. Or just turn up the speaker on my computer so I can hear when a human picks up. Of course, not everyone has a modem any more, so the program could also come as a Skype plug-in and in cell phone versions for different mobile operating systems.

The program doesn’t need any sophisticated voice-recognition technology to know when it can press the next number. It can just be programmed to pause an appropriate length in between number-presses. And by letting me set my default services, I don’t need to see the huge list of companies all the time unless I want to. I could just press the “electric company” button and be talking to a person at ConEd a few minutes later. The program would need to come with some actual spoken words pre-recorded for those phone systems that require you to say “yes” or “operator,” etc. And it could store my account numbers so it can enter them where needed.

This shouldn’t be too difficult, right? Old BBS dialer software might even be usable by loading it with Gethuman info instead of BBS phone numbers, and using Hayes Commands to handle the pauses and subsequent number presses. But that method has limitations, and isn’t as complete or elegant a solution as a dedicated Gethuman Dialer.

[This idea came about during a conversation with my friend Jay, who deserves a share of the credit on this one. Thanks, Jay!]

Update: Well that was fast. A reader named Scott points out that such a service already exists through a web-based interface called Bringo at nophonetrees.com. I suppose a desktop app would calm any concerns about divulging your phone number or other personal information to any third parties, although it should be noted that Bringo’s privacy policy looks pretty good. So until such a thing exists, I’ll definitely bookmark Bringo.

December 4, 2007

Bookstore Befuddlement

About 10 years ago I worked in a large chain bookstore (where I once actually selected this book as my “employee pick”). I think I was a pretty good bookseller, but there was this one conversation I had with a customer that in retrospect I find amusing. I was standing in the Science and Computers section when he approached, looking for books on a particular topic.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Where can I find books about pediaphiles?”

Hmm, I thought. He’s looking for books about people who are sexually attracted to children. Well that could be in psychology, or true crime maybe. “What kind of book are you looking for?” I asked.

“Just a general book.”

“Well, are you interested in the psychology of pediaphiles? Or case studies?”

With obvious confusion on his face, he said, “I guess I’m trying to find out how they’re made.”

“Well, I think that would be psychology. Let me look in the computer and see what we have,” I replied, catching on that we were somehow miscommunicating something, but unsure what that might be.

“I don’t think it would be psychology,” he said, “I think it would be here in the computer section.”

“Books on pediaphiles?”

“Yeah.”

“Um…”

“Do you even know what a pediaphile is?” he asked, obviously thinking I’m an idiot.

“Well, I thought so.”

“It stands for Portable Document Format. It’s what you use when you want to e-mail a document and retain the formatting.”

“Oh! PDF file! I thought you were asking for… nevermind. Yes, we have books on PDF files.”

And I haven’t been able to look at a PDF attachment the same way since.

Note: I know, the word is “pedophile.” But the prefix “pedia-” as in “pediatrician” threw me off. I’ve also recently learned that people who edit a lot of wikipedia articles are sometimes called pediaphiles. None of these people should be confused with podophiles, who have foot fetishes.

October 5, 2007

Reader takes Histogram Idea even further

Reader Josh Millard wins the Reader of the Week Award. He took my idea of embedding an image in a histogram even further. While I was only able to hide a histogram-picture in a gradient, Josh has figured out how to take all those pixels from the gradient and create a photorealistic grayscale image.

His first proof-of-concept was, rather inexplicably, a grayscale photo of a drainpipe that hides the skyline of Miami in its histogram. Then he created a photo of Miami that hides the skyline of Miami. And finally he used my original example to hide the skyline of New York City in the original source image of the skyline of New York City. So this picture:

…has this histogram:

Josh is a genius. You can see the other examples of Josh’s work, as well as a link to his script that handles all the magic, at Josh’s blog.

September 27, 2007

Idea: The Histogram as the Image

Yesterday, I posted the image seen here and told you that there is another picture hidden somewhere within it. I challenged my readers to find it. After a bit of confusion in the comments, someone finally declared that they found it: “Hahahaha! Cool! It’s the NY skyline!” Another reader noted, “The first thing I did was to try to tweak the image using the Levels command. I was greeted with a surprise right there in the dialog.”

Yes, the New York City skyline is hidden in that picture’s histogram. It looks like this:

Several people have asked how I did it. So I’ll explain, but I might get a little longwinded in my attempt to be clear. Feel free to just skim and look at the pictures if you don’t want to read it all.

The idea for this project started with a question: Is it possible to create an image that depicts its own histogram? (A histogram, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a bar graph representing all the tones in an image — it typically looks something like a mountain range). I played around a little bit in Photoshop and the closest thing I came up with was this image:

…which has this histogram:

Yeah, okay. That was neat I guess. But I couldn’t come up with any other shapes that worked. But all this thinking about histograms and what they represent got me wondering if I could control what a histogram looks like by manipulating the image. Could I create something recognizable? To try it, I would need to find something that would be entirely black, horizontal in orientation, and not require any holes or vertical gaps. A skyline seemed perfect.

I did a Google Image Search for “manhattan skyline silhouette” and was tickled to see that the perfect image came up in a result from my own site! I once posted an entry about New York City as depicted in the animated film Antz. Google showed me this image from that entry on the first page of search results:

A typical 8-bit grayscale image can have 256 possible shades of gray. A histogram represents the amount of pixels at each level from 0 to 255, and is 256 pixels wide. So the first thing I did was shrink down the Antz skyline to 256 pixels wide. This meant that each vertical band of black pixels in the skyline represented a value from 0 (black) to 255 (white).

Then I created a new document. The first column of pixels in the skyline image represents value “0” and has 43 black pixels. So my new document needed 43 pixels with the value “0.” Column 2 of my skyline represents value “1” and has 46 black pixels. So my new document needed 46 pixels with the value “1.” And so forth.

Another way to think of it is to say that I took all of the “skyline” pixels from this image:

…and put them in a new document, with no other pixels. Then I rearranged all those pixels into a square from dark to light. The result was very close to perfect. The histogram looked pretty much like the skyline, but it was stretched vertically.

Normally, a histogram is scaled vertically so that whatever value has the most pixels reaches all the way to the top of the graph, and everything else is sized proportionately. In this case, it is the shade of gray which forms the World Trade Center antenna that has the most pixels. So this is roughly what the histogram looked like:

I was thrilled that it worked, but I didn’t want it stretched vertically like that. In order to prevent the WTC tower from being too tall (and everything else scaling upwards with it) I had to put extra pixels of one value in my image, so there would be more pure of that value than any other value, which would push the others down so that the graph remains proportionate. I chose pure white, because this creates a thin black line at the far right side of the histogram where you don’t notice it.

I could have added this row of white pixels at the bottom of the new image, but instead I typed my website name in white, and placed it within the image. In doing so, I copied over some other pixels, which altered the skyline. So I had to put it in a place where the “damage” to those buildings wouldn’t be that noticeable. It took trial and error, but I found a good spot. It changed the skyline on the left side a little bit (compare to the “Antz” image). But it still looks like buildings, so I accepted it. Also, this way I get some credit if the image gets passed around without attribution.

I did it all tediously by hand, but I think with a little tinkering, someone could write a program to simplify the process, taking a 256 x 100 silhouetted image and extrapolating a new image with that as the histogram. And the final image file doesn’t need to be a square with a gradient, either. Those pixels could be in any order. They could be completely scrambled. Or they could be laid out in a way that shows an image of an Apple (as in “The Big Apple”). As long as no new pixels are introduced or deleted, the histogram remains the same. But that is a lot more work than I was prepared to do.

Oh, I almost forgot: I doubled the image size so it would look a little better on the website. As long as I resized it using the “Nearest Neighbor” method instead of some other interpolation method, every pixel (and therefore every shade represented in the image) would be duplicated identically, keeping the proportions in the histogram the same.

Update: A reader has taken this idea even further!

September 26, 2007

Puzzle: Find the Hidden Picture

The below image looks like a simple gradient with my website’s name on it. But it’s more than that. There’s a picture hidden in that gradient. Can you find it?

I’m not sure if this is a cool way to hide an image, or just a gimmicky parlor trick. And I don’t know if this will be easy or difficult to solve. But when you figure it out, post the answer in the comments.

If nobody figures it out in a day or two, I’ll post the solution.

Update: I’ve written a follow-up post which explains the answer, and includes a detailed explanation of how I did it.

September 17, 2007

Idea: Color Photos with the Game Boy Camera

Note:I wrote this article in 2001. At the time, Nintendo had a camera add-on product for the Game Boy that took low-quality black and white pictures. Small, cheap, color digital cameras were not nearly as prevalent as they are now. I originally posted this on my photography website. There has been a link to the article from Ironic Sans in the sidebar on the front page, but I’ve decided to integrate it as a regular Ironic Sans entry and remove the sidebar link.

Background

All colors of the visible spectrum can be broken down into combinations of just three colors: Red, Green, and Blue. In fact, if you look at your computer screen under a magnifying glass, you will see that it is made up of tiny red, green, and blue lights that are varied in combinations to create all the colors you see on your screen.

Every color picture can be broken down into three separate black-and-white pictures which represent the amounts of red, green, and blue that are used to make up that picture, as in this example:

The Theory

If a color picture can be made from three black and white pictures, I could use the Game Boy Camera to take three separate black and white pictures (using filters to capture the red, green, and blue values of a scene) and then use the computer to combine them into a single RGB image. A more elaborate version of this process is commonly used in high-end digital cameras used by large photo studios, so I saw no reason why it wouldn’t also work with the Game Boy Camera. [*note: three-pass digital cameras aren’t really used as often now in 2007 but they were at the time I wrote this]

The Process

I picked a location in my apartment where I could make sure the Game Boy could sit absolutely still (so I could take three identically-posed pictures) and picked a small colorful object to photograph. One of the first objects I tried photographing was a Snapple bottle, Kiwi-Strawberry flavored, with a colorful green and pink label.

To capture only the red light reflecting off the Snapple bottle, I was going to need a red filter that I could place in front of the Game Boy Camera, so that only red light would reach the lens. I went to a local photo-supply store and obtained a free book of filter samples, containing dozens of various colored filters. I picked a red filter and held it in front of the lens and took a picture. I repeated the process with a green filter, and then a blue filter, careful not to move the camera or the bottle in between shots.

Using the Game Boy Camera PC Link from Mad Catz, Inc., [no longer available in 2007] I transferred the images to my computer, where I ended up with these three images:


I thought I had done everything right, but when I pulled the images into Photoshop to create my RGB composite from these three images, I came up with a picture that looked like this:

Problems

Obviously, I didn’t have the full color photograph I had anticipated, although there was a hint of color in the image. If my theory was correct, though, it should have worked. A little bit of research on the internet brought me to the cause of the problem. It turns out, the light-sensitive chip inside the Game Boy Camera (it’s called a Mitsubishi M64282FP chip) is sensitive to infrared light, which isn’t visible to the human eye. While I was succesfully filtering out red, green, and blue light, infrared light was still reaching the lens of the camera.

This was easily provable by pointing my Game Boy Camera at my TV remote control and pushing a button on the remote. Even though nothing seemed to happen that I could see with my eyes, I could see the front of the remote light up on the Game Boy screen! I would have to filter out the infrared light reaching the Game Boy Camera in order to get my full color photograph.

Solutions

Apparantly, most digital cameras are sensitive to infrared light, but contain a built in “hot mirror” filter, which blocks infrared (something I learned through a little research on-line). So I went to my local camera shop and bought a hot mirror filter (which was more expensive than I thought it would be, but I was now determined to take color photos with my Game Boy Camera, so I bought it anyway). I held it in front of the Game Boy Camera and repeated the remote control test, and could no longer see the light of the remote light up. I had a good feeling about this. I attached the hot mirror filter to the front of the Game Boy Camera using masking tape, and picked a new test subject to photograph: a Garfield Pez Dispenser.

Repeating the three-pass process of photographing an object with the red, green, and blue filters, I came up with these images:


Already I had a good feeling, as these images were more in line with what I was expecting than with the previous tests.  So I again transferred them to Photoshop, created a composite RGB image, and this was the result:

The World’s First color photograph taken with the Game Boy Camera!

More Pictures

October 31, 2001 - Okay, I know that they are not the most exciting subjects, but the following photos (plus the Pez Dispenser above) are the World’s First color photos taken with the Game Boy Camera. I just shot whatever was around to be used as test subjects.



November 10, 2001 - My first outdoor attempts. First off, notice the vignetting in these images (the halo that seems to be around the pictures). This is caused by the camera itself reflecting in the Hot Mirror filter. I’ll have to use a black magic marker or something to make the GB Camera black so it doesn’t reflect (I think it wasn’t a problem indoors because the camera didn’t have such bright light on it). In the picture of the trees, the blue sky came out nicely peeking through the top. I’ll have to solve the halo problem before my next attempts.

[That’s it. I never got the motivation to shoot any others in this series, as cheap color digital cameras became more prevalent, and the novelty of taking low quality color pictures with a cheap handheld device wore off].

April 27, 2007

Idea: Uncensor the Internet with Greasemonkey

Uncensor the InternetThere’s an article on-line from Money Magazine called “50 Bulls**t Jobs.” That’s right. Bulls**t. With those two asterisks in there. Come on. We know what word they mean. So why not just say it? If they think we’re adult enough to be reminded of the word, why don’t they think we’re adult enough to see the actual word? (The article is based on a book by the same name, but without the asterisks)

Oh, I know. It’s the kids. They might be reading. Sh*t. I didn’t f*cking think of that. It would be terrible if they would see the word “Bulls**t” in print, but it’s okay for them to see it with the asterisks, right? They’ll have no idea what that means. And I’m sure they have no idea what “the F word” is, so let’s just keep calling it that.

But what about us adults who can decide for ourselves whether we want to see foul language or not? Is there a way for us to avoid all this f****ng unnecessary self-censorship littering the internet?

There is now. I’ve created the “Uncensor the Internet” script for Greasemonkey (a Firefox plug-in that lets you add all sorts of useful functionality to your web browser, available here). If you’re running Firefox with the Greasemonkey plug-in, just install this script, and see all the foul language that people are pretending they don’t use.

It’s also available as a standalone plug-in for those of you who aren’t running Greasemonkey. Right-click on the link to save it to your desktop, and then drag it into your browser window.

To see an example of the script in action, reload this page after you’ve installed it.

Previously: The CNN Fortune Cookie Greasemonkey script. It automatically adds the phrase “in bed” to the end of CNN.com headlines.

Update: I’ve fixed the script so it knows the difference between “a whole” and “a**hole,” and it knows the difference between “batch,” “botch,” “butch,” and “b*tch.”

April 9, 2007

Idea: The Digital Jewel Box

I love having my music on my hard drive or iPod, but one reason I still buy CDs and then rip them is that I enjoy holding the jewel box in my hand and reading the liner notes while the music plays. I just hate how much space all those jewel boxes and liner note inserts take up.

Digital Jewel BoxSo how about making a Digital Jewel Box? Here’s how it would work: The DJB sits next to your stereo or computer in its charging dock. Similar to a digital picture frame, it syncs wirelessly to your home network via WiFi, syncing itself with iTunes or whatever digital player you use. When a new song comes on, the DJB’s screen shows the album cover art for that song.

At any time, you can take the DJB out of its dock, sit on the couch with it, and use the controls on its side to flip through the rest of the liner notes, including track listings, lyrics, song credits, acknowledgments, and whatever else is included in the paper version. The pleasure of flipping through liner notes doesn’t need to go away just because CDs do.

You can also use the DJB as a remote control, as long as your media player supports it. The DJB has an infrared transmitter, and the charging dock has an IR receiver. So if you’re sitting on your couch flipping through your favorite album’s liner notes and you decide you’d rather be listening to a different track, you can skip forward or back by pressing buttons on the DJB itself. If you want to hear a different album entirely, use the DJB’s menu to flip through your music. The songs themselves aren’t stored on the DJB, but the track listings are.

When you’re not playing music, you can set your DJB to turn off completely, or double as a digital picture frame, displaying your personal pictures.

Here’s another mock-up of what the DJB might look like, but probably with fancier transitions than these:

Digital Jewel Box

March 18, 2007

Joost Invitation Contest - Part II

Congratulations! The winner of the first Joost invitation contest — the person who came up with the best idea for a second Joost contest — is “Bill”, who suggested a rebus competition. In Bill’s entry, he suggests that entries must contain the word “Joost,” but I’ll be a little more lenient and just say that the second contest is as follows:

To win a Joost invitation, come up with the best rebus for a TV show or movie title. For example, an entry might look like this:

joostrebus.jpg
Eye = I
Clover - C - R = Love
Lou + Seahorse - Horse = Lucy

The answer to this rebus, then, is “I Love Lucy.”

To enter, use the “Contact” link in the sidebar to e-mail me your rebus, or put it on-line somewhere (flickr or elsewhere) and link to your entry in the comments. Make your entry creative, but solvable. I’ll accept entries until midnight Monday (tomorrow) and announce a winner on Tuesday, and I’ll post the best entries. Have fun!

Update: We have a winner! RichM submitted my favorite Rebus entry:

rebusqx2.jpg

I like it because he could have made it much easier by putting a picture of a Beetle plus a picture of Juice. But he took the long way and had fun with it, and even included Nico. Good job. Congratulations, RichM!

March 16, 2007

Joost invitation contest - Part I

joostaward.jpgA few people have asked me if I have any Joost beta invitations since I recently wrote about Joost’s missing feature. Well, I do have two invites to give away. But instead of just giving them randomly, I decided I should have a contest to decide who gets them. But after thinking about it for a few days, I haven’t come up with a good idea for a contest. So here’s what I’ve come up with instead:

There will be two separate contests. The winner of the first contest is the person who comes up with the best idea for the second contest. I tend to favor creativity, so if your suggestion is “You should pick a name out of a hat,” you’re not as likely to be in the running as if you write “You should give it to whoever comes up with the funniest cartoon involving a platypus and a hyena.” The second suggestion sounds like a much better contest.

To enter: Submit your suggestion in the comments below. You must enter your e-mail address to enter, but I won’t be using it for anything other than sending an invitation to the winner. One entry per person, please. Only entries submitted before midnight Eastern time on Monday March 19 Saturday March 17 [I’ve just learned that unused Joost beta invitations will expire on March 22, so I’m shortening the contest to allow sufficient time for the second one] will be considered. I will make a decision on Sunday and announce the winning contest for the second invitation. Have fun!

Update: The contest is over. You can find Part II of the contest here.

March 6, 2007

Idea: Joost’s missing feature

INTRODUCTION
Joost LogoI’ve been participating in the beta test of a hotly anticipated new program called Joost. It’s essentially a video-on-demand service from the people who brought you Kazaa and Skype, which uses proprietary technology to make high quality video over the internet as instant as your TV. Unlike video sharing sites such as YouTube, you won’t get to upload your own videos to Joost. They will provide the content through contracts with various TV and movie companies, and show the programs in appropriate Channels. For example, they might have an NBC Channel where you can catch up on episodes of Heroes. Or you might go to the Warner Brothers Movie Channel to watch the movie Batman.

While still in beta, the content is pretty limited. I can watch some National Geographic documentaries, a few episodes of the World’s Strongest Man competition, some Canadian music video programming, and that’s about it. But while Joost is working on adding new content and improving the video technology, I’m still left wondering where the feature is that will make me want to watch video on demand with Joost instead of with, say, my local cable company or other on-demand service. Is it enough that the video starts in 5 seconds instead of 5 minutes like with other high-quality streaming video services? Maybe. But my cable box is even more instant than that. There’s a real opportunity here to make Joost something different and better than television, instead of something that’s as close to TV as possible. That’s where my idea comes in.

I imagine a feature that combines all the best elements of social websites like Digg, the humorous style of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the educational aspect of DVD commentary tracks, the user-contributed spirit of a Wiki, the format of Pop-Up Video, and integrates it all with Joost. It could make even the dullest content interesting and fun to watch, and make the best programming even better. Here’s how it works:

HOW IT WORKS
If I have the yet-to-be-named feature turned on, I can choose to use Joost in one of three modes: Writer Mode, Voter Mode, or Viewer Mode.

Writer Mode
Joost Writer ModeIn Writer Mode, whenever I pause the program I’m watching, a window pops up that I can type in. Joost uses a time stamp to remember where I was in the program when I wrote this comment, and also remembers where on the screen I’ve put the window. Then I can type in any comment I want. Preferably, it’s either informative about the particular scene (e.g. “This scene was filmed at Maine North High School in Chicago”), or it’s a funny comment on the scene. I can tag it appropriately as “funny” or “informative” so Joost knows how it’s intended.

Voter Mode
Joost Voter ModeIn Voter Mode, I watch the movie with a window overlaid in which all the comments people left scroll up automatically. I get to vote every comment up or down based on whether I agree that it’s funny or informative or neither of the above. In my illustration, all the comments are white, but perhaps they would be different colors to specify funny or informative. If there are too many comments to reasonably vote on so quickly, I can tell Joost to not show me every comment so that it’s more manageable. I can set the pace myself. Or I can just vote on the ones that jump out at me, ignoring the others.

Viewer Mode
Joost Viewer ModeIn Viewer Mode, I can watch a program or movie with comments turned on. They will show up where and when the commenter specified, and then disappear after a few seconds. Because people read at different paces, I can control how many pop-ups I want per minute. If I say I want 12 per minute, only the 12 highest rated pop-ups will be shown in each minute of the program. I can specify if I want to see just the funny comments, or just the informative comments, or both. I can choose to read the highest-rated comments of all time, or just of the last month or week or day. I could watch the same program week after week and experience it with a whole new set of commentary. And at any time, I can switch to a different mode if I think of a new comment to add or if I want to vote down a lame comment I just read.

It’s possible that someone might have written a highly-rated comment that only makes sense if you’ve read a particular earlier comment that isn’t as highly rated and may not be shown. To make sure this doesn’t happen, the writer can indicate his comment is a “reply” to a specific earlier comment. In this way, a “reply” comment with enough votes to be shown automatically bumps up the earlier comment so it’s also shown.

CONCLUSION
This could be a lot of fun. Imagine watching a show like Heroes once, and then watching it again with comments turned on to see what other people caught that you missed. Also, this has potential to make programs appealing that people wouldn’t otherwise watch. Joost could worry less about making deals with content providers, because even free content like old copyright-expired movies become entertaining in a whole new way. So much of what makes Web 2.0 great is the community-generated content, and right now Joost offers no new way for the community to interact with its product except passively.

Sure, it does have an integrated chat window, but that’s nothing new that I can’t already do with any of a dozen IM programs. And because Joost offers video on demand (as opposed to live broadcasts), it’s unlikely that I’d be watching in sync with anyone else in a chat room anyway, which limits the usefulness of channel-specific chat. This idea could solve the problem of commenting in real time, and makes sure all the best comments rise to the top.

January 23, 2007

Idea: “CNN Fortune Cookie” Greasemonkey script

[Note: This entry has been re-written for clarity]

You remember when you were a kid, and someone taught you that trick where you add “in bed” to the end of a fortune cookie fortune and hopefully make it funny? So a fortune that says “Your great imagination will serve you well” becomes “Your great imagination will serve you well in bed.” You get the idea.

Well, I’ve written a Greasemonkey script that only does one thing: It adds “in bed” to the end of the main headline at CNN.com. Just install it, visit CNN.com, and wait for the entire page to finish loading. Then read the headline. I haven’t decided yet whether or not it’s funny, but it sure amuses me.

I call it The CNN Fortune Cookie script. (Link goes to the script).

For those who don’t know what Greasemonkey is, here’s the scoop. The Firefox web browser allows people to write plug-ins to make it more useful. One of those plug-ins is called Greasemonkey, which allows people to write short scripts that make specific websites more useful, or slightly changes the web browsing experience, without writing a full plug-in. Greasemonkey doesn’t do anything on its own without a script installed. You can see what kinds of scripts are available by visiting userscripts.org. Some of them are pretty nice.

Caveat: I’m not much of a scripter, so I can only hope this works.

January 11, 2007

Idea: Fun with facial recognition

A few years ago at Superbowl XXXV in Tampa Bay, police set up digital cameras at strategic points in the stadium, and used computers to compare everybody’s faces to a database of known criminals on the loose. The city of Tampa used the same system to scan faces on the city streets for the same purpose. The system was unsuccessful and no arrests were ever made, according to an ACLU press release, but a controversy arose over whether or not it was an invasion of privacy to subject everyone to a virtual police lineup.

Between a poor success rate and the controversy over privacy, facial recognition software got a bad rap.

Facial RecognitionBut maybe that could have been ameliorated if the technology had been used for entertainment purposes. What if the cameras scanned the crowds at the Superbowl and built a new database as it went, instead of using a database of known criminals, to find the two people in the audience who looked the most alike? It would be interesting to see, in a crowd of 100,000 people, how close a match can be found among strangers. Then, at halftime or during breaks in the action, the Jumbotron could showcase the closest matches in a series of “Separated at Birth?” moments.

How cool would that be to find your dopplegänger sitting just a few sections away at the Superbowl?

January 4, 2007

Celebrity Patents

Harry Houdini patentLast month, Google introduced its new Patent Search feature (in beta), allowing users to dig through 7 million US patents from 1790 to mid-1996. On-line patent searching has already been possible through the US Patent and Trademark Office website, but Google makes it fast and easy using their already familiar interface.

So, inspired by Google’s new easy-to-use patent search, I decided to dig up some of the celebrity patents that have been issued over the years. The following 18 20 patents are all by celebrities not usually known for being inventors. You can follow the links to the actual patents to learn more about each one.

1. Eddie Van Halen, Musician.
Patent #4,656,917 — Musical instrument support

Eddie Van Halen patent

2. Zeppo Marx, Actor/Comedian.
Patent #3,473,526 — Cardiac pulse rate monitor

Zeppo Marx patent

3. Harry Connick, Jr., Musician/Actor.
Patent #6,348,648 — System and method for coordinating music display among players in an orchestra

Harry Connick Jr patent

4. Penn Jillette, Magician.
Patent #5,920,923 — Hydro-therapeutic stimulator (for, um, sexual stimulation)

Penn Jillette patent

5. Michael Jackson, Singer.
Patent #5,255,452 — Method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion

Michael Jackson patent

6. Abraham Lincoln, President.
Patent #6,469 — [Method of] Buoying vessels over shoals

Abraham Lincoln patent

7. Julie Newmar, Actress (“Batman” TV Show).
Patent #3,914,799 — Pantyhose with shaping band for cheeky derriere relief

Julie Newmar patent

8. Marlon Brando, Actor.
Patent #6,812,392 — Drumhead tensioning device and method

Marlon Brando patent

9. Lawrence Welk, Musician/Bandleader.
Patent #D170,898 — Welk ash tray (design)

Lawrence Welk patent

10. Jamie Lee Curtis, Actress.
Patent #4,753,647 — Infant garment

Jamie Lee Curtis patent

11. Gary Burghoff, Actor (Radar on “M*A*S*H” TV Show).
Patent #5,235,774 — Enhanced fish attractor device

Gary Burghoff patent

12. Mark Twain, Author.
Patent #140,245 — Improvement in scrap-books

Mark Twain patent

13. Hedy Lamarr, Actress.
Patent #2,292,387 — Secret communication system

Hedy Lamar patent

14. Walt Disney, Animation Innovator.
Patent #2,201,689 — Art of animation (method of filming animation cells with a shadow on the background)

Walt Disney patent

15. Harry Houdini, Magician.
Patent #1,370,316 — Diver’s suit

Harry Houdini patent

16. Danny Kaye, Actor/Singer/Entertainer.
Patent #D166,807 — Blowout toy or the like (design)

Danny Kaye patent

17. George Lucas, Director.
Patent #D265,754 — Toy figure (design)

George Lucas patent

18. Charles Fleischer, Actor (voice of Roger Rabbit).
Patent #4,219,959 — Toy egg

Charles Fleischer patent

UPDATE: Here are two more celebrity patents, courtesy of comments on this blog and others:

19. Prince, Musician/Singer.
Patent #D349,127 — Portable electronic keyboard musical instrument (design)

Prince patent

20. Paul Winchell, Ventriloquist.
Patent #3,097,366 — Artificial Heart

Prince patent

December 26, 2006

Idea: A virtual slide projector

Virtual Slide Show
Some of my photos, as they might look with the Virtual Slide Projector. For now, you’ll just have to imagine the sound effects.
As a professional photographer, I’ve occasionally been asked to speak with photography students about commercial photography, and invited to show some of my work. While putting together a digital slide presentation for a talk I gave not long ago, I realized that I missed the sounds of an old slide projector. The laptop and digital projector have completely replaced the carousel and trays of yore, and we no longer have that satisfying click-and-whir of the mechanical projector.

Surely, I thought, someone out there must make slide show software that mimics the look-and-noise of a real slide projector. I would love to have those noises coming from my laptop, leaving people in the back of the room wondering, “He’s not really using an old fashioned slide projector, is he?” But despite my searching I found nothing. I wanted to write such a program before my lecture, but it’s beyond my programming abilities. Heree are the features I imagined it might have, all of which could be disabled or varied from an “Options” menu:

  • A constant low-volume whir, recorded from an actual slide projector.
  • The mechanical noise a projector makes when advancing to the next slide, with a brief blackout in between the images, as though there really were a slide tray progressing to the next slide.
  • Random upside-down, backwards, or blank slides. I don’t think I ever sat through a slide show that didn’t have occasional screw-ups. The “Options” menu should allow you to control the frequency of these screw-ups, or turn them off completely. And after every screwed up slide, there should be a blank slide and then the same slide displayed correctly, as though someone manually fixed it.

It could have a very simple interface. Just let me browse to the directory with my images, and start the show.

December 18, 2006

Idea: A “Flying Wiimotes” Screen Saver

Flying WiimotesThe news lately has been full of reports of people’s Wii Remotes (aka “Wiimotes”) flying out of their hands and smashing into their television sets during heated gameplay with the new Nintendo Wii. Every time I hear reference to Flying Wiimotes, I keep thinking of that old Flying Toasters screen saver from the “After Dark” series that was so popular on people’s computers in the early 1990s.

So it got me thinking. Someone should combine the nostalgia of that old screen saver with this modern bit of technology history and make a Flying Wiimotes screen saver to commemorate this gaming snafu. It strikes me as a simple thing to do, but it’s just slightly beyond my programming expertise (or lack thereof). Anybody want to try their hand at it? There’s even an open source clone of the flying toasters screen saver as a starting point.

November 6, 2006

When you need those photos in a rush

I saw this sign the other day. I think it’s great that here in the heart of New York City, you can get your film processed in only seven hours. Wow. Maybe one day they can get it down to as little as three or four hours. One can only hope.

7 Hour Photo

September 27, 2006

Interview: Seetharaman Narayanan

This is the second in a series of occasional interviews with people I find interesting or who work on interesting projects.

Seetharaman NarayananBy now, you either recognize the name, or you’re wondering who Seetharaman Narayanan is, and the difference probably depends on what you do for a living. If, like me, you have a job where you launch Photoshop on a daily basis, then maybe, like me, you can’t stop staring at this guy’s name on the Splash Screen every time it launches. Seetharaman Narayanan. It’s hard to look away. Sure, other people worked on Photoshop. But nobody else has a name like Seetharaman Narayanan.

If you too have been unable to look away from his name as you open Photoshop, you may be thinking, “I thought I was the only one!” Take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Back in 2004, a simple comment was posted on the ConceptArt.org forum. It said, “Every time I open up photoshop I am mezmorized by this guy’s name. It’s all I can look at. Don’t know why…” Six pages of “Me, too!” responses followed.

He has gone on to inspire a Seetharaman Narayanan fan club group on Flickr, and being unable to get his name out of your head has been recognized as a sign of Photoshop addiction.

So I decided to find out just who this mysterious Seetharaman Narayanan is. What does he do? What does he think of his notoriety? And what’s interesting about him other than his name? Mr. Narayanan, who goes by the much shorter name “Seetha,” was nice enough to answer these questions and more.

When did you become aware of the fascination with your name among Photoshop users?

Jeff Schewe [Photographer] sent me an e-mail sometime in the fall of 2005 about the existence of Seetha’s fanclub thread from ConceptArt.org.

What do you think about it?

I thought it was funny and was amazed at the amount of free time people had at their disposal. I always thought that I was fortunate in getting hired by Adobe at the right time since any Tom, Dick or Harry would have done the same thing I did and perhaps better than what I did. They may not have become famous unless they had some weird last name that is almost un-pronouncable.

How long have you been at Adobe?

I have been with Adobe for 15 years to date. I joined Adobe as a peon on Photoshop 2.5 on September 23, 1991. Peter Merrill (who now works on Acrobat and is still with Adobe) was the lead engineer on the task of making Photoshop run on Windows 3.1 and I was his deputy in the early days. Peter is one of the brightest engineers I have ever worked with in my 20 year career (he may just be the smartest of all!). I still remember the interview I had with Peter before I got hired at Adobe. Peter had this toy application (that later became Photoshop) with ugly Icons and Cursors he showed me and mentioned to me that he had that code ported over from the Mac and he could even open an image (Flower.psd which by the way, shipped as a sample file with Photoshop 2.5) on Windows. I had previously worked at CrystalGraphics and we had just ported over Crystal’s TOPAS over to the Mac platform just weeks prior to my interview with Adobe and I was totally under whelmed by Peter’s demo of Photoshop on Windows. In spite of my lack of enthusiasm, Peter hired me anyway and the rest is history.

What are you responsible for in Photoshop?

Lots of things. I joined Adobe as an engineer responsible for making the Windows port happen. After laying the foundation for the Windows effort, one of the first things I did for the product was to make it multi-threadable. Those days, Mac did not support multi-threading but Windows NT did. In my spare time, I wrote the multi-threading plug-in that took advantage of multiple processor in Photoshop. Peter was of immense help here. When I was re-writing the image processing algorithms in the plug-ins, he pointed to me that there was no need to do any image processing in the plug-in since the plug-in need not know about algorithms and it would be sufficient to just split the tasks and call the functions that knew how to do image processing. It just shows how stupid I was and how much of a genius that Peter was in pointing me to that simplicity. After we shipped 3.0, the Mac and Windows teams got merged and I worked on several things in the core product. Since the team always viewed me as the Windows guy, it would be interesting to note that I was one of the key persons responsible for the Photoshop port to Mac OS/X.

What is your professional background?

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Regional Engineering College, Tiruchirapalli, India. I came to the U.S to pursue my Masters in Engineering at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Since that place was so much fun (Playboy’s number one Party School in 1987), I decided to get another Masters from there in Computer Science. I joined CrystalGraphics (I think they are still around) as an engineer on Crystal TOPAS and after a few years at Crystal, I joined Adobe.

Do people express fascination with your name in the real world? Or is this just an on-line phenomenon?

Not really. I had to spell my name a few times before they get it. I got used to it now.

Are there other names on the Splash Screen that you think deserve more credit and get overlooked because people can’t stop staring at your name?

Every one of the engineers and QE deserves as much credit as I do. But I took the cake because of my long name. Too bad Joe Ault, Chris Cox and Scott Byer don’t have the long names as I do.

Are you working on any new projects we can look forward to seeing your name on in the future?

I worked on Bridge 1.0 (I had the opportunity to work on that since I championed the cause for the FileBrowser in Photoshop 7.0 and CS) and am currently working on getting Adobe Lightroom ported to Windows. But Photoshop is always my home.

Everyone knows about your interesting name. What’s one interesting thing about you that people don’t know?

I bike to work every day, rain or shine. My bike route is 20 miles round-trip and I have been riding to work for the past 10 years. I even influenced my mentor Peter Merrill into biking to work. Since Peter is a maniac, he is now doing double-centuries on weekends.

Thanks, Seetha!

Previously: Interview with illustrator and author Adam Rex

September 25, 2006

Idea: Fiber Optic Streetlights

I can think of several reasons why this would never work. And there are probably more reasons I’m not thinking of. But as a concept, I like it.

What if every streetlight had a corresponding streetlight on the other side of the planet, with fiber optics connecting them to each other? Instead of using lightbulbs, sunlight shining on one streetlight would be gathered through a lens, travel through the Earth along fiber optic cable, and come out its corresponding streetlight on the other end. Like this:

Fiber Optic Streetlight

I’m sure it would be enormously expensive to set up a system like this. But imagine never having to provide electricity for a streetlight ever again. Surely it would pay for itself in the long run, right?

Of course it’s not enough to just have a corresponding streetlight on the opposite East or West hemisphere, but it would have to be on the opposite North/South hemisphere, also. Not just the “other” side of the planet, but the true “opposite” side of the planet. This would make sure that long days on one side of the planet are providing light during the long nights on the other side. But then this presents a new problem because it would require a one-to-one relationship of streetlights on opposite sides of the planet, and I’m pretty sure there’s more need for streetlights on the Northern Hemisphere than Southern Hemisphere, so that wouldn’t work out evenly.

But maybe that problem could be solved with giant “sunlight gathering centers” set up on the sunlit sides of mountains in the middle of nowhere, providing sunlight to the streetlights on the opposite side of the planet via fiber optics.

Another problem: it would be difficult to keep these things maintained, with Earthquakes and other wear and tear that would damage the fiber optic cables. And when new roads are developed, they would need new streetlights, and it’s probably tough to keep setting up fiber optic streetlights every time you build a road.

Yeah, I know. Impractical in reality. But still. I like the idea.

September 7, 2006

Idea: The iZod

It’s the iZod: an Izod branded series of bendy-style stands for your iPod, in preppy poses, wearing Izod shirts. There could be a Golfer iZod, and a Tennis iZod, and a Country Club iZod, and an iZod for, well, whatever else preppy people do.

The iPod iZod

July 27, 2006

A parallel istaverse

If you live in a major city anywhere in the world, there’s a good chance that there’s an “-ist” website covering your town. Beginning with Gothamist, covering New York City, the “istaverse” as they call it extends to Los Angeles, London, Shanghai, and beyond.

Gothamist logoEach “-ist” website has its own cute logo following the same theme: a few sillhouettes of buildings, other architecture or landmarks, followed by “citynameist.” Each one also features a different colorful background. The original Gothamist logo, above, was designed by Sam Park, of Tiny Factory.

So I got to thinking. What if the “istaverse” people existed in fictional cities? I’m sure they would write about the new Starbucks being built in that up-and-coming neighborhood in Townsville, or some event being put on by that funky art collective in downtown Delta City. And I’m sure Bedrockist.com is where the Flintstones would point their, um, rockputer to see what the mayor said in his latest news conference about all those layoffs at the quarry.

But what would the website logos look like? I imagine they’d look something like this:

Bedrock

Busytown

Delta City

Halloweentown

Hill Valley

The Island

Lilliput

Orbit City

SimCity

Townsville

The Village

Bonus: There are two more that I didn’t think worked quite as well as those above, so I didn’t include them in the list. But you can click to see them anyway: Bonus 1 and Bonus 2

Update: Other -ists that I considered but rejected, partly because I couldn’t really think of any architectural icons to go with them at 2:00 this morning when I wrote this piece included Pleasantvilleist, Mayberryist, Funkytownist, Bumfuckist (oh, crap, I totally forgot — I was going to do a broken-down shack and some tumbleweeds for this one; oh well), CrystalLakeist, Dogpatchist, Grover’sCornersist, TwilightZoneist, and a few others. Was there a name for the town where the Smurfs lived?

Update: I just added Lilliput. I couldn’t resist.

July 18, 2006

How one man sent one e-mail and took down my entire website. And he didn’t even know it.

[Note: In the following bit-too-long rant, some information has been changed to protect identities. But the name of my no-good, awful, deceitful former web host Doteasy has been left completely intact. Avoid them at all costs.]

On June 23, I spent the day flying back to New York from a business trip in Los Angeles. Adam Sandler’s movie Click opened that day, and lots of websites were linking to an article I wrote about the movie’s overused plot device. It was a higher than usual traffic day for Ironic Sans. When I boarded my plane, web traffic was high.

I arrived home after midnight. I was exhausted. I just wanted to follow up on a few e-mails, see where my traffic plateaued for the day, and go to bed. So you can imagine my state of mind when I checked my e-mail and found this from my web host:

Hello David,

We have received spam complaints regarding your website. Please note that the use of spam, sent from our email servers or to promote a website hosted on our service, is prohibited by our service policy and we strictly enforce a zero tolerance for spam.

Our Service Terms and Conditions document may be viewed at the following URL:

http://www.doteasy.com/Terms/index.cfm?T=TAC

Due to the proliferation of SPAM abuse, we have no choice but to suspend your account from the Doteasy service due to a violation of the terms and conditions of the service. If your domain is registered through Doteasy, you may login to the Member Zone control panel to change your web host once you have found a new service provider.

Regards,

Miguel
Doteasy Customer Service

[ Offending message ]
Return-Path:
From: “TD”
To: [x]
Subject: Latest must-have fashion statement
Date: Thu, 15 Jun 2006 20:47:04 -0400
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: text/plain;
charset=”us-ascii”
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit
X-Mailer: Microsoft Office Outlook, Build 11.0.5510

http://www.ironicsans.com/2006/03/
idea_prepixelated_clothes_for_1.html

I was shocked. I hate spam. I wouldn’t send spam. I find spammers to be among the lowest forms of life. I have never sent a single mass e-mail about anything related to this website or pretty much anything else for that matter. No chain letters, no jokes, no urban legends, nothing. This did not come from me. This was some sort of misunderstanding. Looking at the “Offending Message” I could clearly see that it was not an e-mail I ever sent to anyone. For one thing, the header information says it was sent with Outlook. I don’t use Outlook. I do sell t-shirts on my site, but that’s meant to be funny more than anything else. It’s not the purpose of my site. If it makes a few dollars, that’s great, but this site isn’t a money making enterprise. I don’t sell Viagra, or Rolex replicas, or have any Nigerian money to offer. Even a glance at my site should have made that obvious.

There was a misunderstanding here somewhere. But their e-mail suggests they’ve already shut me down! Was it too late to do something?

I immediately sent the following reply:

I just received notice from you guys saying that I was reported for sending spam, and that this will affect my hosting service. The message I received quoted an e-mail supposedly sent by me. It has the subject “Latest must-have fashion statement” and links to one of my pages where I do indeed sell a t-shirt.

I have NEVER sent that e-mail, nor authorized anybody to send it on my behalf, nor ever asked anyone to do any such thing. And I will swear to that in whatever court you want. This is the first time I’ve heard or seen it. I’m as interested in you are in finding out where it came from, and will cooperate in whatever way you want. Is there header information that indicates anything useful? I normally use Time Warner Cable in NYC as my outgoing email host, and I have a gmail account I use also.

How many complaints have you received? I hope this is an overzealous fan of my site who sent an e-mail to a few friends, and not a widespread problem.

I will immediately post a message on my blog asking people not to do this. What more can I do?

I request that you not terminate my account, as I have most definitely NOT violated any terms and conditions.

What more can I do? Please advise.

I know, I know. That’s exactly what a spammer would say. “It wasn’t my IP address! It wasn’t my e-mail account!” Whatever I could say, a spammer would say, too. I was being screwed by a zero-tolerance spam policy for something I had nothing to do with, and had no knowledge of.

I then posted a quick message on my blog that said something to the effect of, “PLEASE DO NOT SEND SPAM ON MY BEHALF!” and explained why. But it was already too late. I could still access my site via http, but couldn’t get through on the ftp server. And when I checked the rest of my e-mail, I noticed someone had written to me complaining that they couldn’t reach my site anymore. The shutdown was already underway. Propagation had begun.

Around now you’re wondering why I didn’t just pick up the phone and call my web host’s 24-hour customer service line to explain everything. Well, they don’t have one. And they take at least 24 hours to reply to e-mails. Why was I with them to begin with?

I already knew that Doteasy wasn’t the best web host around. But I started using them years and years ago to host my photography website when I thought they were a pretty good deal. They’re free for the most basic hosting package, which was all I needed at the time. So when I needed a better hosting package, I just stayed with them out of habit and comfort, upgrading instead of switching to a better web host. I didn’t think I needed the immediacy of phone support. Until now.

Exhausted, I spent the next hour making sure I had everything backed up in case I lost my site forever. Once I was sure it was all safe, I finally went to bed. I woke up the next morning, and the website was gone. No Ironic Sans. No nothing. Just a generic Doteasy placeholder page.

So I took their advice and found myself a new web host. A few other photographers I know are using Media Temple as their web host, and while I’m sure other people can offer other suggestions, the 24/7 phone support of Media Temple was a good enough selling point for me. I immediately signed up (very quick and easy) and spent the rest of the day reinstalling Movable Type and restoring everything as best as I could. And at one point when I hit a stumbling block, I picked up the phone and called Media Temple. In less than two minutes I was talking to a real live person who was very friendly and helpful.

Then I logged back in to Doteasy, where my domain was still registered, and switched the Domain Name Server information to my new web host, making a mental note to move my domain registration away from Doteasy as soon as possible. By the end of the day, Ironic Sans was back on-line. The new DNS information was beginning to propagate. All I could do now was wait.

In the meantime, I took another look at that “Offending message.” It didn’t make sense. Why would someone send spam on my behalf? What benefit would there be? I examined the e-mail header. The “To:” information had been blocked out, but the “From:” address was still there. Since Doteasy thought I sent it, there was no need to hide it from me. So I did a Google search on the e-mail address and found a name to go with it: Tom Dalton (not his real name). Even better, I found a phone number. I called it. I got his voicemail. It was his office number, and he would be away until Tuesday. I’d have to call him back. Is it possible that this was just one person who sent one e-mail to a friend, and that person thought it came from me? Could it really be that simple?

By now my Saturday was gone. It wasn’t how I wanted to spend my first day back in town, but Doteasy made it a necessity. Whatever. Screw them. I was done with Doteasy. Or so I thought.

On Monday, I received the following e-mail:

Hello David,

Thank you for your response.

As an internet service provide [sic], we have the obligation to respond and take action on such reports. If we do not respond to such reports, our mail server IP address can get Blacklisted. This will affect everyone on that server plus servers on the same IP Sub-Block.

It is clearly stated that we strictly enforces a zero-spam tolerance policy:
http://www.doteasy.com/Terms/index.cfm?
T=TAC&bodyClass=pageCenter#13

Normally the account will stay suspended but since we have received a positive reply that this will not happen again, we offer you the opportunity to re-activate your account. We have re-activated your account, please allow 24 hours for your account to be fully functional.

Once your account is fully functional, please do as you have said about posting a message in your forum.

Regards,

Miguel
Doteasy Customer Service

Too little, too late, Miguel. I replied:

Because of the extreme unhappiness I have with Doteasy’s handling of this situation, compounded by the fact that there is no phone support and therefore no way for my to even discuss this situation with Doteasy, I am leaving Doteasy as a customer, and have already transferred my web hosting to another company. So there is no need to reinstate my account… [T]his would amount to a total of four days of downtime for nothing I did, and with no way to reach you in a timely manner. That is completely unacceptable.

I would appreciate a cancellation of my web hosting at ironicsans.com and refund for the remainder of my prepaid year of hosting ironicsans.com with Doteasy. I am not at all at fault in this situation, so a refund is the only appropriate way to make it up to me.

Please advise when I can expect a refund for the remainder of my prepaid hosting. Thank you.

On Tuesday, I left town again on business, but had some time to make a phone call while I was at the airport. I dialed Tom Dalton’s phone number. The conversation went something like this:

“Tom Dalton?”

“Yes?”

“Hi. My name’s David. You don’t know me, and I’m sorry for bothering you at work, but I think you may be able to help me solve a mystery.”

“Um…”

“Did you visit a website called Ironic Sans in the last few weeks?”

“Yes.”

“That’s my site. Did you see the post about the pixelated t-shirts?”

“Yes.”

“Did you happen to e-mail anyone about them?”

“Well yes, actually. I did.”

“I thought you might have. You’ll never believe what happened.”

I told him the story. He confirmed that he sent the e-mail to 7 or 8 people. One of them must have thought it was spam and reported it to Doteasy, thinking they were doing the right thing. I fell victim to Doteasy’s zero tolerance policy because someone thought they were doing the right thing. Tom was friendly and apologetic. He couldn’t guess which person might have reported me. I asked him to inquire, as I’d be interested in talking to whoever it was. How could they not notice the “From” address? What’s it like to actually report spam and have a successful outcome (from their perspective anyway)? Are they in the habit of reporting spammers? I wasn’t angry as much as I was curious. I haven’t heard from Tom, or whichever of his friends reported the “spam,” since then.

Unfortunately, the story didn’t end there.

Days went by. I couldn’t give this any more attention because I was busy with work projects. As soon as I could, I transferred my other sites away from Doteasy. But I still had to switch Ironic Sans to a new registrar. I know a lot of people don’t like Network Solutions, but since my photography domain is already registered with them, I decided to move ironicsans.com over there, too. Maybe I’ll move it somewhere else eventually. But for now I just wanted to be away from Doteasy.

So I logged into my Network Solutions account and began the process of transferring ironicsans.com from Doteasy. I received this reply from Network Solutions:

**IMPORTANT: One or more of the domain name registration(s) is in lock-status with your current Registrar. Please contact your current Registrar to unlock the domain. Once this domain is off of “lock-status,” please follow the instructions in the authorization e-mail to ensure our ability to process this transfer request.

Lock status? Doteasy offers lock-status protection, but they charge extra money for that. I never paid for that, never wanted that, and I just want to get my damn domain away from them! Why is it in lock status? Did those bastards lock my domain so I can’t escape them? I logged into their Control Panel, where a person who pays for the service is able to lock or unlock the domain at will, but the only option available is to lock the domain. So how the hell do I unlock it?

Meanwhile, it’s been more than a week since I last wrote to Doteasy. Then this shows up:

Hello David,

Because this account was suspended due to a violation of our terms and conditions, a refund on the unused portion of our hosting services will not be issued.

Regards,

Miguel
Doteasy Customer Service

Miguel doesn’t get it. I never violated their terms and conditions. I hate Miguel.

I wrote back:

I have contacted the person whose e-mail address appeared on the supposed SPAM that you think I sent. He said he sent that e-mail to EIGHT of his friends recommending my website. One of them must have thought it was SPAM and reported it to you. I did NOTHING in violation of your terms and conditions. This overreaction on your part is very frustrating.

But whatever. At this point I want as little to do with Doteasy as possible, so I’d like to transfer my domain to another registrar. But I see you have made unauthorized changes to my registrant information, and put my domain in “Locked” mode…

I understand why you have a strict SPAM policy. I also understand that I am screwed because of it… I now want to take my business elsewhere.

Please stop holding my domain name hostage, and allow me to transfer to a new host.

Thank you.

To this date, I haven’t heard back from Miguel.

So I started over. I opened a new customer request ticket:

I’m trying to transfer my domain away from doteasy, but the registrar I want to move to tells me my domain is in “lock” status with you guys. I don’t want to be in lock status, and never signed up for domain locking. I don’t see a way to turn off lock status myself (just plenty of places telling me that I can turn lock status ON for a fee).

Please tell me why I am in lock status, and remove the feature so I can transfer my domain away from doteasy. Thank you.

Please don’t let Miguel get it. Let it go to anybody in Customer Service but Miguel. Please not Miguel.

Finally, I heard back from “Steve.”

Hello David,

I have submitted a request on your behalf to have your domain unlocked and it should be completed shortly. Please note that if you transfer your domain name registration away from Doteasy, you may no longer be eligible for our hosting services free of charge.

Due to changes in registry transfer rules, we use domain registrar-lock to prevent unauthorized transfers and domain hijacking from occurring. This is a safety precaution we have implemented as a domain registration service provider.

Please refrain from making any DNS changes or updating any contact information as doing so will cause your domain to relock.

If you have any other questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Regards,

Steve
Doteasy Customer Service

That’s right. They automatically lock every domain. This is a feature that they advertise all over their site as available for purchase for almost $10 per year. But if you don’t buy it, they give it to you for free anyway. That’s deceitful. If you know anyone on Doteasy that’s paying for the feature, tell them to stop.

Now, after all is said and done, I finally have moved everything away from Doteasy. They are not my host, and they are not my registrar. They have my money, and they better not charge me any hosting-renewal fees for anything they think I may have opted into when I signed up (I can see that argument coming). But the lessons I’ve learned are clear:

1) Doteasy asks you to pay for things they give you for free.

2) Doteasy has terrible customer service

3) Anyone can have any website taken down just by sending an e-mail, if it’s hosted by Doteasy

4) If you have a website hosted at Doteasy, you should leave them as soon as possible

5) Spam sucks, but zero-tolerance policies can screw the innocent

6) If you write a really long blog entry, you shouldn’t be surprised if people don’t read all the way to the end. If you made it this far, thanks for reading my rant.

Update: Having gotten strong responses from readers recommending various recourses I could take, I thought I’d try asking Doteasy for a refund one last time before I complain to the credit card company or Better Business Bureau. I sent Doteasy one last e-mail, pointing them to this blog entry, and letting them know about the thousands of people who have read it so far. I didn’t have high hopes, but I didn’t expect this, either:

Hello David,

Thank you for your email.

As per the Terms and Conditions, we strictly enforce the Zero-Spam regulation. As the reply sent to you previously on July 04, we will not be able to refund the remainder paid hosting service. We have already offerred you the exception to re-activate your account without the Spam Re-activation fee of US$25.00.

Regards,

Annie
Doteasy Customer Service
“Join the hosting revolution!”

So now I’m lucky they didn’t charge me an extra $25 on top of everything else for their own screw-up? I hate these people more and more. Grr.

I’ll update again if anything further comes of this.

July 17, 2006

The Art of 1010 WINS

1010 WINSThe radio station 1010 WINS is for New York City what CNN Headline News is for cable television. It’s just nonstop headlines, weather, and traffic, repeating every 22 minutes. Their slogan is, “You give us 22 minutes, and we’ll give you the world.” Their website, 1010WINS.com, features local headlines and news stories mixed in with syndicated newswire stories.

But for me, the real treat is the unintentional art gallery at 1010WINS.com. Sometimes, 1010 WINS uses photos from the newswire. But often, some Photoshop Whiz Kid Artist at 1010 WINS smashes together some stock photos with a Photoshop filter and makes some of the greatest image mashups on the internet.

So I now present a small gallery of artwork from 1010 WINS that I call, “You give us 22 news stories, and we’ll give you bad art.”

The Featured Exhibit

1. Peace Grannies on Trial for Times Square Protest

1010WINSThe crown jewel of the 1010 WINS Art Collection is Peace Grannies on Trial for Times Square Protest. For a story about a group of senior citizen war protesters, the artist placed a black shadow behind one of the so-called “Peace Grannies,” representing the plight of the protester during a deadly war, even while she herself is heading to her grave. The cane represents the narrow band of freedom on which we all lean, while her hat signifies oppression from above. Her coat, of course, is the cloak of dignity. A powerful image indeed.

2. Man Charged with Having Crack in Sundae

1010WINSIt’s a classic struggle for every artist. How do you illustrate a news story about a man caught smuggling two rocks of crack cocaine in an ice cream dessert? Well, the artist at 1010 WINS found a creative way to solve that problem, using photos of crack cocaine and an ice cream sundae. By superimposing them both on a pile of powdered substance — representing both the popular drug and the sweet sugar used in making delicious desserts — he unifies the images thematically, while the black background represents the health problems implicit in too much of either substance.

3. Forecast Predicts Another Rough Hurricane Season

1010WINSThe influence of conceptual artist Barbara Kruger is obvious in this piece, which uses imagery and words in montage. When the AccuWeather Hurricane Center predicted a strong hurricane season, the 1010 WINS artist chose to ironically juxtapose two simple sandbags hurricane warning flags with the power of one giant hurricane, representing the futility of man against nature. The disproportionate scale of the flags represent mankind’s desire to hold back the winds, even as they overtake us. The label “2006 Hurricane Season” acts as a forecast, but may in the future be seen as an accurate description of what the image depicts.

4. Final Moments on Tape. Family Hears WTC Call

1010WINSNearly five years after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, audio tapes were released featuring conversations between 911 operators and people trapped in the World Trade Center. For the event, the 1010 WINS artist created this commemorative work. On the day the tapes were released, a cell phone was so clearly important — a modern technological luxury but also an icon of this day in history — that it seemed like an object as large as the towers themselves. Or perhaps slightly larger, in black and white, looking a bit like it was photocopied and then faxed a few times before being scanned in for a montage.

5. Rockland County Joins Gas Sales Tax Capping

1010WINSThe ashy, veiny hand reaches out, gas pump nozzle in hand, a stream of “S”es pouring forth from its spout like precious drops of gasoline. Together, the hand and pump give off an eerie glow as Honest Abe looks onward, his gaze obstructed by an exaggerated dot screen. George Washington is barely visible, shrouded by an orange shadow of depression. The message is clear: Rockland County joins gas sales tax capping.

The Extended Gallery

6. Fatal Shooting in Brooklyn

1010WINS

7. Murders on the Rise in NYC

1010WINS

8. Untitled

1010WINS

9. Westchester Law Locks Down Wireless Networks

1010WINS

10. Jury — Merk Liable for Vioxx Users Heart Attack

1010WINS

11. Subway Stabbing in Brooklyn

1010WINS

12. NJ University Drops SAT Scores, Gains Applicants

1010WINS

13. Conn. Officials - Lyme Disease up 26 Percent

1010WINS

14 & 15. The “Police Line” Diptych.

1010WINS 1010WINS

Individually titled, “1 Killed, 4 Injured, in Parkway Crash (Blue)” and “5 People Struck in Hit and Run (Red).”

16. FBI Commish Orders Review of 911 Tapes

1010WINS

17. Strong Earthquake Strikes Central Indonesia

1010WINS

18. Quick Thinking Student Saves Teacher with CPR

1010WINS

19. Rockland County Woman Arrested for ID Theft

1010WINS

20. Fatal Car Crash in Brooklyn

1010WINS

21. NYC HDC Earmarks $179m for Apt’s

1010WINS

22. Study - Less Time, Passengers Reduce Teen Crashes

1010WINS

June 7, 2006

Idea: Two functions in one button

Okay, this one’s so simple that I shouldn’t even have to say it. It should have been done already.

The new Macbook still has just one button for clicking. A right-click is simulated by holding down control while you click. Or you can use the convoluted right-click shortcut where you put two fingers on the Trackpad while you click the Trackpad button with another finger. Yikes.

So to Apple I suggest the following solution. It merges the functionality of two buttons with the look and feel of one button:

onebutton.jpg

Yes, it’s that simple. One button that you can click on either side of. And for people who don’t like this new style of button pushing, let them go to their Preferences and turn off two-button functionality, restoring their computer to the old fashioned single-button style they’d gotten used to. This way, instead of debating over what method of right-clicking works best, people can have all the options available and decide for themselves.

Apple can make music players that know where they’re being touched. They make a mouse that knows where it’s being touched. They can make a Trackpad that knows where it’s being touched. Why can’t they make a single button that knows where it’s being touched?

May 18, 2006

When Isamu Met Bucky

Noguchi and FullerI had the pleasure this evening of attending the opening of a new exhibit at the Noguchi Museum in Queens highlighting the work of sculptor Isamu Noguchi and his good friend Buckminster Fuller.

Buckminster Fuller, many people will remember, was the man most famous for inventing the geodesic dome, an incredibly strong structure made up of a network of struts. Fuller’s invention was conceived as an extremely lightweight but stable building that could be erected simply and inexpensively. While the dome was a big success, he designed it after a long string of other inventions which Fuller hoped would create a better life for humanity, but which never caught on.

Bucky
A chrome sculpture of Fuller by Noguchi overlooks several exhibits
Several of those inventions are showcased in the new exhibit. One highlight is a scale model of Fuller’s Dymaxian House, an easy-to-ship and easy-to-assemble home that hangs from wires around a central column (“Dymaxian” is Fuller’s made up contraction of the words Dynamic, Maximum, and Tension). Fuller imagined this as the wave of the future, an ultra-efficient, ultra-affordable, mass-producible home. But only one Dymaxian House was ever built. It was lived in for 30 years before being relocated to the Henry Ford Museum in 2001.

Bucky
A visitor examines a model of the Dymaxian Car
Fuller’s Utopian vision extended beyond homes. In 1933, he built a prototype Dymaxian Car, a highly efficient vehicle that seated 11, reached 120 miles per hour, got 30 miles per gallon (unheard of at the time) and did it all on only 3 wheels. It was 20 feet long, but barely needed more space than that to do a full 180 degree turn. Sadly, an accident at the 1933 World’s Fair prompted investors to abandon the project, and the car never passed the prototype stage. It’s a shame it never went any further in development. It’s hard not to imagine how automobiles would be different today. For the current exhibit, the Noguchi museum has brought together models, pictures, and video footage of the car in action.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The exhibit explores many more of Fuller’s projects, but these were my favorites.

Bucky
The sculpture garden at the Noguchi Museum
The exhibit, called “Best of Friends: R. Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi,” reflects the friendship and values of two men, each dedicated to improving the lot of the common man, one working through science and the other through art.

The lives of both men are presented nicely through an exhibit designed by graphic designer Tomoko Miho, who the AIGA called “the design world’s best kept secret.” Along one wall, an extensive timeline follows the parallels of both men’s lives, and is included in full as a gatefold in the exhibition brochure, making it a great souvenir.

The exhibit opens this Friday, and continues through October 15.

May 15, 2006

Idea: A parking lot compass

Maybe this idea is obvious enough that somebody is already developing it, but I did a quick search and didn’t see anything. So I submit the following.

parking lotWhy doesn’t someone make a compass to help you find your car in the parking lot? This should be an optional accessory for every GPS-enabled car. You should be able to get a keychain or purse-sized device that will point to your car so you can find it when you come out of the mall, grocery store, etc.

Obviously, this presents a small problem because if someone finds your keys they can find your car and drive away with it. So maybe there’s a keypad on the device so you can type in a password. Or, if it can be done cheaply enough, there can be a thumbprint scanner attached, to make identification even simpler.

April 23, 2006

100,000 hits

Today, Ironic Sans had its 100,000th visit, to be commemorated in this post, reflecting a long-standing tradition of posting about your 100,000th hit.

I consider the site as having gone live on March 11, 2006, even though the archive has a few earlier posts, which I needed to have so I could figure out the site’s design. But March 11 was the first day I considered the site finished and posted something that I thought might attract people to my site. The next day, March 12, I started using SiteMeter to keep track of my visits. And according to SiteMeter, I had my 100,000th visit at 4:29:17 PM today.

So that’s 100,000 visits in 43 days. Not bad!

The top three pages in the first 100,000 hits:

1) Pre-pixelated clothes for Reality TV Shows

2) The Google Maps Guide to Ghostbusters

3) 60 Seconds in the Life of Landing Gear

Thanks for helping me hit this milestone, everyone!

April 20, 2006

Blog Name or Band Name?

Get out your #2 pencils, everyone. It’s time for a quiz.

Each of the following is either a Blog name or Band name. Which is which?

1. River Tyde
2. An Emotional Fish
3. Small Ball Paul
4. Greedy Kristian
5. Trout Fishing in America
6. The Factory Floor
7. Albany Injury Lawyers
8. Early Edison
9. Sidearm Delivery
10. Coffin Break
11. Glamordisiac
12. Whoopity Doo
13. The House of Rapp
14. Grim Skunk
15. Dr. Know
16. Dr. Sanity
17. Generation K
18. Metafizzics
19. Joust the Facts
20. Stolen Ogre
21. Subway to Sally
22. 702
23. The Third Decade
24. Clea
25. Mother Pus Bucket

Okay, time’s up. Pencils down. Pass your answer sheets to the front of the class. Here are the answers:

1. Blog 2. Band 3. Band 4. Blog 5. Band 6. Blog 7. Blog 8. Band 9. Blog 10. Band 11. Blog 12. Blog 13. Blog 14. Band 15. Band 16. Blog 17. Band 18. Blog 19. Blog 20. Band 21. Band 22. Band 23. Blog 24. Blog 25. Neither. I can’t believe motherpusbucket.com is still available.

April 18, 2006

The Google Maps Guide to Ghostbusters

NOTE: After two years working just fine, the map is having problems. I’m trying to fix it. Sorry for the inconvenience. Should be fixed now. Let me know if you have any problems!


Click to launch map in new window
Hey! There’s a Ghostbusters symbol in my Google logo! What’s going on? One’s a movie, and one’s a search engine. Next thing you know, fish will be flying, trees will be swimming, cats and dogs living together — mass hysteria!

Welcome to the Interactive Google Maps Guide to Ghostbusters. You can click the Google logo above or the map image below at any time to launch the map in a new window, or read on for more info.


Click to launch map in new window
I’ve created a mashup of Google Maps and every New York City location used in filming the movie Ghostbusters and its sequel Ghostbusters 2 that a person might be likely to visit on a trip to Manhattan. It’s my first time using the Google Maps API, but I think I’ve come up with a slick way to use it. But still, let me know if anything doesn’t work right.

Also, if you’d like to link to the map, please link to this entry’s permalink instead of the map itself. Thanks.

Ready? Check it out! The map will open in a new window.

April 10, 2006

How Google Book Search saved the day

In late 2004, Google announced its Google Book Search feature, which allows internet users to “search the full text of books (and discover new ones),” according to the site’s main page. It’s a feature with enormous potential, but it immediately became controversial. As Wikipedia explains:

While many hail the initiative for its potential to offer unprecedented access to what may become the largest online corpus of human knowledge, the publishing industry and writers’ groups decry the project as a wholesale rights-grab. The Authors Guild of America and Association of American Publishers have individually sued Google, citing ‘massive copyright infringement’.

Being a person who creates intellectual property for a living, I clearly don’t support massive copyright infringement. But copyright law is tricky, and there’s a very good argument to be made that Google Book Search is not infringing on copyright because it falls within the “fair use” doctrine of the copyright law. Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig has on his blog an excellent argument for why Google Book Search is fair use.

Which brings me to my story about how Google Book Search saved the day.

My friend Rachel is writing her dissertation. At 150 pages, she estimates she’s almost halfway finished. It’s called “Negotiating the Creative Sector: Understanding the Role and Impact of an Artistic Union in an Industry.” She has used hundreds of books so far as resources, and as you can imagine she will end up with a lengthy bibliography. So imagine her horror when she realized that, for one of the books which she has already cited more than a dozen times, she completely forgot to indicate the page numbers from which she took the citations.

Enter Google Book Search.

Using Google Book Search, Rachel was able to enter the quotes that she took from the book, and the search engine showed her an excerpt from which the quote was lifted, including the all-important page number. Instead of pouring over her notes and searching through the book, she just kept entering the quotes, and Google Books supplied the pages.

The fair use provision of the copyright law says that reproduction for purposes of scholarship or research is not an infringement of copyright. It further says that the amount of the portion used in relation to the work as a whole should be considered in deciding whether or not infringement has taken place. In this instance, the purpose is clearly scholarship and research. And Google Book Search only showed Rachel an excerpt in which her quote is found — a small portion in relation to the work as a whole.

Furthermore, as Rachel told me, “I purchased the book. I own the book. So it’s not like these people have lost my money.”

It’s up to the courts to decide whether or not Google Book Search does in fact infringe on any copyrights. But in the midst of so much controversy, Rachel’s story immediately jumped out at me as a perfect example of how Google Book Search can be used as a valuable tool, apparently well within the scope of fair use.

March 16, 2006

Watch “V” on-line for free!

vcover.jpgSo yesterday AOL launched its new free TV On-Demand service called In2TV where you can watch old TV shows from the WB archives on-line. I figured it would be pretty lame. I was imagining episodes of “Friends” or something. But I went and checked it out. Guess what’s there! V! You can watch V for free! 10 episodes!

The show’s description: “A race of aliens called Visitors comes to Earth and announces their peaceful intentions. But what do they really want with us?”

Those of you who remember the show probably have fond memories of Donovan leading the resistance against the alien leader Diana. Those of you who don’t remember the show will wonder what all the fuss was about. For the rest of us, though… pure nostalgia.

vdetail.jpg