Saturday, August 15, 2009

Trabant Goes Green

Wired reports on a German consortium that are going to bring back the Trabant as an electric vehicle, complete with solar panels on the roof for airconditioning. The Trabant stole western hearts after the fall of the Berlin Wall when the East-German made car epitomised the reunion of the divided city. Since the old version was famous for being smelly, cold and unreliable, one hopes that the eco-Trabbi will not inherent all of the charms it´s ancestor.

Fear And Surprise

Glasgow University have demonstrated that recognising facial expressions is not the same all over the globe, says the BBC. Westerners tend to look at the entire face for visual cues whereas Asian populations focus much more in the eyes alone. As a result expressions that use similar eye expressions like fear and disgust are misinterpreted. The best part of the article was where they showed how emoticons in Asian populations are the right way up and focus specifically on the eyes, unlike the Western equivalent that includes the mouth.

Japan Here We Come!

Since I´m visiting Japan for the first time next week and there have been two large earthquakes in the last week in the Japan region, I thought I would see just how active it has been there recently. Other colleagues have said that it shakes regularly there, but in the past week we have this, this, this, this and this (links may be broken after 10 days because I´m not sure the US Geological Survey maintains them), and to top it off it is cyclone season.
There are plenty of cultural differences of course as well as a language barrier, but at least I´m not going alone. I had better get round to reading that guide book as soon as possible and brush up on any tips it might have to offer. Apparently our GSM phones do not work, but on the plus side broadband internet is like running water, so it will be primarily email communications from the looks of things. My impression of a city´s liveliness, architecture and atmosphere always leave an impression on me and I am kind of expecting the culture shock, but excited at the same time because I do not quite know how I will perceive it. It will also give me a chance to use the mobile phone I recently purchased with built-in camera. I know that sounds old fashioned, but I never followed the mobile hype and can´t say I miss it, so for me it´s new. Of course that means I am not used to having it so I hope I do not forget to use it! I´m hoping I can use it to update this blog with photos in combination with my netbook.
I´m looking forward to going and I hope I can give our Japanese colleagues sufficient information to provide support for both their domestic and international projects.

RIP Les Paul

Joe Satriani called him the orginal guitar hero. Not only famous for inventing the hard body electric guitar, he was also a pioneer of multi-track recording which revolutionised studio recording. The BBC reports on various tributes here, including Slash who´s Sweet Child Of Mine intro must be one of the most famous Les Paul guitar pieces in rock history. Thanks Les - you´re legacy will live on.

Hackers Succeeed On A Sequoia Voting Machine

There seems to have been a lot of discussion about electronic voting machines, which seems to have got kick started following Bush´s dubious win in Orange County Florida. Ars Technica reports on a security research group who were able to compromise the Sequoia AVC Advantage electronic voring machine. The hackers were able to obtain such a machine second hand to use a test bed and together with off the shelf documentation were able to create a hack that could be programmed into a plug-in results card that could switch votes from one candidate to another. Another good reason to stick with good old pencil and paper, even if it does take longer to count.

Bald Penguin Gets Protective Wetsuit

A lovely story from the BBC about a Humboldt penguin that moulted its feathers too quickly and risked getting sunburn. The solution was to create a protective suit for the penguin from the leg of a wetsuit. At first Ralph´s buddies were curious but soone enough accepted him.

Antarctic Glacier Thinning

Following the collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf there is a lot of attention being paid to the accelerated melting of ice in the Antarctic. The BBC reports on the Pine Glacier that is melting and indication of how rapidly the West Antarctican ice sheet is melting. The volume of water contained in this sheet could form a danger to coastal cities as a result of rising sea levels.

NASAs Big Rock Tracking Lacks Funding

NASA started a program 10 years ago to track so called Near Earth Objects, rocks in space that come close to Earth orbit and may be at risk of collision. Ars Technica reports that although Congress at the time assigned priority to this project, it is now stalled due to lack of funds. NASA have been requested by Congress to cut back on budgets, but putting at risk a project that they themselves regard as important, as well as the number of high profile near misses that have been reported, makes me wonder where they should put their priorities.

Child Headaches

The BBC reports that 10% of 12-15 years olds suffer from headaches multiple times a week. Probable causes are depression and anxiety. Considering I suffered from headaches that were stress related when I was 9 or 10 years old, I´m glad that the condition is being recognised. Whether a whole lot can be done to help I don´t know. It is essential to discover the reasons for the anxiety which could be anything from parent-child relationships, peer group pressure or school performance.

One In Ten - Thirty Years On

The BBC reports on the economic situation in Birmingham. The recent car plant closures have a major impact on employment here, on top of the current economic dip the world is currently experiencing. In 1981 UB40 released their single One In Ten, referring to the unemployment statistics at the time. An interview with the band reveals that they consider the situation now possible even worse than it was thirty years ago. Furthermore they say city developers are focusing too much on short term profits and taking the heart out of the city by building expensive apartment blocks rather than focusing on art and culture.

Google On Caffeine

Following hot on reports of Bing chewing at the edges of Google's share of the online search market and that Facebook have bought FriendFeed, a real-time search engine to return results that are relevant to current tweets and blogs, Google have let loose Caffeine in the lab. The BBC reports that Google reckon it is light years ahead of Bing (which doesn't surprise as I have already said in a previous post). I´ve looked at a number sites that show that there is not a huge difference between old and new Google search, so maybe it is just a tweak in the engine to serve tweets, blogs and multimedia results faster.

Youth Willing To Pay For Unlimited Downloads

Another kick in the balls in of the record companies who can´t adapt their business model to fit new media. UK Music report on a study into music download habits of 14-24 year olds. As well as actually purchasing CDs (a subject of an earlier blog entry), members of this age group would be satisfied in paying a flat monthly rate for unlimited downloads. This is not unlike the mechanism used for mobile phone bundles. If I look at the amount of legal effort they are putting into bankrupting selected uploaders rather than addressing their inadequate business model, I don´t think it´s likely the record companies will pick up on this anytime soon though.

Big Dipper Crash

The famous Big Dipper wooden roller coaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and opened in 1923, has been the scene of an accident, in which the second car ran into the back of the first which had got stuck on the rails. The BBC reports that around 20 people were taken to hospital with injuries to the neck, back and face.

Microsoft Granted Another Ridiculous Patent

Why do the US patent office keep doing this? The patent described here tells of a mechanism by which meta data is included in an XML schema that describes markup information without having to embed it between within the actual text. The intention is to provide compatibility with other applications that can load, process and save documents based on this schema.
Why is this ridiculous? Well basically an XML schema can almost be seen at the same level as a communications protocol, describing document layout and properties in the same way you might use meta data in a database to describe a record layout, types, lengths etc. So the patent covers the application of an XML schema which in itself is not an invention. Furthermore it is trivial: if you know how to write a schema anyone can make one, just like anyone who knows how to write a formal letter can write one. Thirdly, what happens if the schemas I have made resemble those of Microsoft too closely - do I get taken to court? This is yet another example of how software patents are abused. Copyright can be used to protect your software property so there is no need for software patents. Writing a computer program is the same as writing a letter or a piece of music, which is not the same as an invention.
Even worse, Microsoft have this week themselves been found guilty of patent infringement on a similar issue and as a result have been ordered to stop selling MS Word. Computer World reports on how i4i have patented a method for creating XML document templates, a method which is also used by Microsoft Word for creating custom templates. Apparently the patent was infringed with full knowledge of Microsoft so that the judge actually increased the claim for damages. Now once again, using XML to manage document content is trivial, so the fact that a company can actually patent such a method and then call it an invention is once again absurd. Even worse, it actually limits innovation because anyone who creates software from scratch that looks a little too much like code from another, even though there may be only one way to implement it, could get taken to court.

Critical Linux Kernel Bug Found

The Register reports of a flaw in the Linux kernel which affects all builds since 2001. The flaw is a result of unimplemented socket functions that are left uninitialised so that malicious code can be injected at these locations to call functions that run under root privilege. The flaw sounds relatively simple to exploit. It also sounds like it would be relatively easy to fix too, just initialise the pointers to a valid but non-operational function for the calls that are not implemented.