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Offline cacheing map tiles in Firefox OS, using IndexedDB

I've been at the OpenStreetMap hack weekend. [Photo]. One of the things I wanted to explore was getting offline maps working on my Firefox OS phone.

Firefox OS is not like iPhone or Android - every app has to be written in pure HTML and JavaScript, which means that for full-featured phone apps / web apps we need to use the fancy extra tools that Mozilla and others are providing to beef up things beyond the usual web features. One of these is IndexedDB which allows a HTML page to store objects longish-term. So let's use that for cacheing map tiles:

The demos are just online maps, so they key thing is testing them with internet access on, and then trying again with internet access off.

I had to make a small tweak to the Leaflet slippy-map code in order to patch it to grab map tiles from my cache-or-live service. I don't know if there's a more "sustainable" way to do this...

Is this any different from standard browser cacheing? Well yes and no. It lets us have tighter control over what we, as "an app", do or do not remember. We get to say that we want to remember map tiles but we don't necessarily need to remember logo images, for example.

Sunday 1st December 2013 | technology | Permalink

Exploring privacy: BitTorrent Sync (btsync)

Post-Snowden, we all need to understand privacy and cryptography a little bit better than we did before. If you use something like Dropbox to synchronise files between computers, or to collaborate with people, you may wonder about the security of it. Well, you should wonder about the security of it: the way Dropbox works is that it sends your files up into "the cloud" which is really a big filestore run by Amazon. That's handy because if you trash your computer, your files can be recovered from Amazon's servers. But it's not so handy in that all your files are stored on some third-party server, maybe in the EU, maybe in the USA. In general we shouldn't have to trust such third parties, so it'd be better if the data were encrypted so that Dropbox/Amazon couldn't inspect it. (Note: technically the data is "encrypted" on their server but not in a way that prevents them from looking at it.) Even worse, we know (post-Snowden) that it's highly likely the US security services have some kind of "relationship" with Dropbox/Amazon through which they can scan for interesting content etc, under rather looser terms than maybe we thought. So Dropbox provides a personal service but not a private one.

Luckily (?) the makers of Bittorrent have come along with an alternative called BitTorrent Sync, which does the same kind of job but in a peer-to-peer fashion.

The way it works is described in the btsync tech summary and it's rather neat. Transferring files between computers is basically done Bittorrent-style, but it transmits the data directly between your computers over an encrypted connection.

(When I say "directly"... it's still transmitted indirectly in the sense that internet traffic passes through many machines - but I mean that your data is not addressed first to some third-party machine [neither peer nor server] before it gets re-addressed and hops onward to your machine.)

If you have two computers, attached to the internet, you sync files between them by telling them the secret random code that it generates for you. You don't need any central server (in principle), because btsync is able to use a DHT which lets it ask the p2p network, "which IP addresses correspond to machines which know my secret code?"

I think this architecture is really rather nice. There are a handful of extra tweaks you need to be aware of - for example, it does in fact use centralised servers (not just DHT) to help bootstrap awareness of peers, and also to help get round firewalls - but the basic idea is neat, and cuts out the middleman compared against Dropbox. In principle, this appears much better privacy-wise.

There is a major security/privacy issue, but before that here's a minor one. The DHT stores data in the form of "SHA1(Secret):ip:port", which means that although your secret isn't directly stored, if some naughty person was spying on you and detected that your computer had sent out a message saying "who knows about SHA1(Secret)?", then the naughty person could ask the same question and discover the IP addresses of the nodes in your little sharing network. So, that doesn't give away your secret or your data, but it does give away some of your web of connectivity. For example, maybe it lets someone confidently associate your work computer and your home computer. These narrower kinds of information leak are hard to stop, but I believe there are tools that can even avoid them (RetroShare privately hops data from friend-to-friend so that an outside observer could probably work out who your friends are, but not which bit of data is destined for which destination).

The major issue is that Bittorrent sync is not open-source. Many, many security experts can tell you that open-source software is much easier to rely on for security, because the actual software code is out in the open (and ideally, the development process too) and can be inspected for any issues. In the past this was just a vague idea, but now post-Snowden we know that government agencies do force software vendors to compromise the security of their software, and then to deny it to us. So it's very difficult to trust a company (especially, right now, a US-based company) when they say their software is private and secure.

(Of course just because something is open-source doesn't guarantee it is secure. The NSA has been documented tweaking public open-source code, influencing on-the-record standards meetings, etc.)

But if it's closed source, it's like buying a boat and not being able to check all round it to see if it's seaworthy. "Is the hull watertight?" "Well, I've checked the left side, and there are no holes in that side." "Let's go!"

So, it's no wonder that the Free Software Foundation considers it a high priority to make a free-software equivalent to btsync. The design is neat, and in principle it's privacy-preserving. In practice... who knows?

Disclaimer: I'm a citizen not a cryptographer. Post-Snowden we all need to understand privacy and cryptography a little bit better than we did before. You should probably read something by Bruce Schneier or Jacob Appelbaum.

Wednesday 11th September 2013 | technology | Permalink

Review: Waka Waka Solar Charger

Last week we went out to Dartmoor, camping with no electricity or running water. Just beforehand, my friend Jan posted that he'd just received his "Waka Waka" solar charger / light in the post. I think he funded their Kickstarter project - apparently the company started with a solar-powered LED light intended for developing countries, one of those business models where they use the profits from selling their neat little device in wealthy countries to support making it available in poorer countries.

Anyway, so Waka Waka make this neat-looking little solar charger that can provide reading light or can charge your phone via USB. Possibly ideal for camping trips, so I got one too. I don't have much experience with other solar cells but here's my review of this one. Looks neat doesn't it?

waka waka photo waka waka photo

The short review: Really pleasant and functional design which can sit/stand/hang anywhere or fold away. In southern England in August, it needs a proper sunny day to charge my smartphone all the way up (i.e. it can't do a full charge every day) but it's great for topping up a phone so you can keep using it. The LED light is surprisingly bright and pleasantly-coloured.

Some extra notes:

I should mention that my main aim was to keep the smartphone charged up so I could use it for GPS and important phone calls. For that reason, we didn't use the LED light feature much (so that we didn't run it down), so I guess I can't really evaluate the LEDs beyond saying they're lovely and bright and neutrally-coloured, and apparently can last for dozens of hours from a single charge. So, having said that:

  • It has nicely-thought-out status lights so you know what's going on. A subtly flashing "bip-bip" indicates how fast it's charging, and a blue light lets you know when it's charging up your USB device.

  • In southern England (latitude about 50 degrees) in August, it needs a good sunny day to charge all the way from zero to full. With varied sunshine, it charges up pretty far, but only enough to get my smartphone up to about two-thirds. That's not a bad deal at all, and if you live in sunnier climes or if you use your smartphone moderately rather than running it dry each day, I guess you'll have no trouble at all. (Though in less-sunny climes, or if it's not summer....) Also, I didn't "optimise" the position of the solar panel too heavily, just left it on the roof of the tent, pointed it at the sun, and went out walking for the day.

  • Once charged, it doesn't hold its charge for ever. It seems that overnight it can fall back from its 4-bars full status down to 2-bars. So it's not exactly like you can treat it as a "spare battery" once charged, I'd guess it makes sense to use the charge within a day if you're going to.

  • Waterproofness: I must admit I'm a bit baffled by the instructions. Apparently it's rainproof on one side (the solar panel side) but not on the other side. So does this mean it's OK to leave it out in the rain, or not? Well, who knows - but I left it out all day, on at least a couple of days and nights when it rained pretty heavily, and it seems fine.

  • It looks like an iphone in a holder! Now you might think that's just irrelevant. Actually, we live in London so it means I can't leave it outside to charge, and can't really leave it prominently showing anywhere, in case it gets swiped. Luckily, on holiday we were in the middle of a field with no-one around.

As I said, the design of the thing is v pleasant - nice simple block design that has a robust feel to it, including the little stand bit that folds out. Also the stand has a hole that can be used for standing the thing on a bottle, or hanging it from the ceiling, or strapping it to your back-pack. Neat.

Wednesday 21st August 2013 | technology | Permalink

Letter to my MP about the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD)

I'm concerned about the LRAD which is apparently being deployed during the Olympics. We citizens don't seem to have a way of knowing if it will be used for backup, general crowd control, or long-term hearing damage. So I wrote to my MP; if you live in London and care about your hearing, maybe write to yours. Here's what I wrote:

Dear [__________],

I'm an audio researcher living in [__________]. Because of my profession, my hearing is particularly important to me. So I'm a little concerned about the Long-Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) that the MoD has confirmed will be in use during the Olympics, and I'd like to ask you to seek some specific assurance please.

I'm aware that the device has two uses: one is to broadcast messages loudly, and one is as a non-lethal weapon which can damage hearing. The MoD has said the device is "primarily to be used in the loud hailer mode". I'm sure you can imagine that the use of the term "primarily" is a concern to me.

In a given situation, there is no way for anyone except the operator to discern which mode is being used or intended. If I am commuting through London during the Olympics and get caught up in something (a crowd situation of some sort), and an officer points the LRAD at me, I have no way of being reassured that there is no chance of permanent damage. This is why I'd like to ask you to seek very specific assurances.

Could you please press the Ministry of Defence to state specifically:

  • Is the LRAD intended to be deployed frequently, or in exceptional circumstances?
  • Under what conditions would the LRAD be used with settings that might endanger hearing?
  • What rank of officer would be required to authorise the use of LRAD with settings that might endanger hearing?
  • What safeguards are in place to ensure that the LRAD will not endager hearing, whether during correct use or operator error?

I hope you can help put these specific questions forward.

Best wishes, [__________]

Reference: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/may/12/british-military-sonic-weapon-olympics

Monday 28th May 2012 | technology | Permalink

I have switched to Bing for search

I have switched my browser's search engine from Google to Bing. I never thought it would come to this!

Years ago I migrated away from Microsoft, disliking what they were doing with their dominance. It feels odd to be deliberately turning to Microsoft now, for a very similar reason.

Google has unified what it does with your personal data, meaning that your emails, video views, web searches etc can all be smulged together for analytic/advertising purposes. I always resented Google's move into the "social" web - the best things that they make are NONsocial, tools that I use as tools - the web search being the main example. Google Scholar was a very important tool in my PhD thesis. Gmail is the best email interface I've used.

I don't want these tools mixed up with the social sharey web, and it made me uncomfortable when google "+1" buttons appeared in all the search results. This change in what they do with my personal data makes it even worse. My distaste is not really worries about what they'll do - but it's a growing problem to rely on just one company for many essential tools, definitely unhealthy, and I just want some of my web activity to be completely asocial and not built into the personal profile Google is building of me.

If you've not used Bing search before (I hadn't really), you might find it a bit funny how many of the Google search options are closely mirrored in the Bing interface - kinda comedy, but hopefully it'll make the transition easier. So far, the two things I really miss in Bing search are recent search results (e.g. in the past week) and scholar search. There's this thing called Microsoft Academic Search but it doesn't have as much content (I searched for "beatboxing" and most of my own research ain't in there - bah!).

But if I want to reduce my dependence on Google, I can't get rid of Youtube - that's where all the videos are - nor Gmail - that would be a massive wrench, changing email address. And I can't stop people giving me Google Maps links. So, even though search is what made Google what it is, weirdly it's the one thing of theirs I can cut out.

The nice thing about my having deliberately dropped Microsoft is that I don't depend on them for any service or system, and they don't have any data about me. So their Bing search can be exactly what I want it to be - a neutral, unpersonalised web search tool.

Sunday 4th March 2012 | technology | Permalink

Simple PHP content negotiation for HTML vs TTL

I'm writing a simple PHP web application. Normally it outputs HTML, but for linked data purposes I'd also like to be able to output RDF in Turtle format, from the SAME URL. This is achieved using something called content negotiation.

Often you can configure your webserver to do the right thing, but in this case I don't have access to the Apache config. I haven't been able to find a simple bit of PHP code for the content negotiation (or at least, not one that behaves correctly) so here's my attempt.

Note that this is NOT a complete flexible content negotiation. It only handles the case where I can output HTML or TTL and nothing else:

// Content-negotiation, here only choosing if we can output HTML or TTL
preg_match_all('|([\w+*]+/[\w+*]+)(;q=([\d.]+))?|', $_SERVER['HTTP_ACCEPT'], $acceptables, PREG_SET_ORDER);
$accept_html = 0;
$accept_ttl  = 0;
foreach($acceptables as $accarray){
        $acclev = isset($accarray[3]) ? $accarray[3] : 1;
        switch($accarray[1]){
                case 'text/html':
                case 'html/xml':
                        $accept_html = max($accept_html, $acclev);
                        break;
                case 'text/rdf+n3':
                case 'application/turtle':
                case 'application/rdf+n3':
                case 'text/turtle':
                        $accept_ttl  = max($accept_ttl , $acclev);
                        break;
                case '*/*':
                        $accept_html = max($accept_html, $acclev);
                        $accept_ttl  = max($accept_ttl , $acclev);
                        break;
        }
}

$negotiatesttl = $accept_ttl > $accept_html; // only output ttl if it's higher-requested than html

if($negotiatesttl){
    // output ttl
}else{
    // output html
}

Here's hoping it works.

Tuesday 28th February 2012 | technology | Permalink

Geomob: mapping mapping mapping

Geomob was interesting tonight. A couple of notes (for my own purposes really):

The Domesdaymap taking the Domesday project and putting it into a useable searchable map was great - the amazing thing about it is that, despite being one of the most important European surveys in pre-modern times, it wasn't turned into open data until one person discovered an academic's Access database and decided to make it into a useable service with an API and a CC licence. Good work!

Nestoria talked about their switch from Google Maps to OpenStreetMap, a tale which has been admirably blogged elsewhere and made a big splash. Apparently they use and really like a rendering engine (client-side) called Leaflet. They decided not to make their own tiles in the end, but despite that they said that TileMill for making yr own maps was fab, and everyone could and should use it for making all sorts of maps. Also, MapBox has some beautiful map renderings to look at.

"Mental Maps": two design students did some work warping OpenStreetMap data to fit people's mental maps of places. They applied it to the tube map too, and made a really lovely print of the result.

MapQuest gave some interesting detail about their server setup. Interesting for map/data/sysadmin nerds I mean, of course. They use a very homogeneous cluster system: each node is capable of rendering tiles, or pre-rendering routing, or whatever, and they allocate jobs according to demand using a "distributed queue" system; standard CDNs aren't so useful because with OpenStreetMap you can't be sure in advance how long the tiles should be cached; oh, and MapQuest uses different rendering "styles" for US, UK, and mainland Europe (and so on), because people in those countries have different expectations about how the map should look.

Thursday 16th February 2012 | technology | Permalink

New musical instrument design: ownership and hackability

We had an interesting conversation here yesterday about designing new musical instruments. We're interested in new instruments and interfaces, and there's quite a vogue for "user-centred design", "experience design" and the like. But Andrew McPherson pointed out this paper by Johan Redstrom with an interesting critique of this move, essentially describing it as "over-specifying" the user. If we focus too much on design for a particular modelled user experience, we run the risk of creating tools that are tailored for one use but aren't repurposable or don't lend themselves to whole "new" forms of musical expression.

The twentieth century alone is littered wth examples of how it's only by repurposing existing technologies that new music technology practices come about. Here's a quick list:

  • The Hammond organ was meant to be used in churches as a cheap pipe-organ alternative, but it really took off when used in R&B, rock and so on.
  • The mixing desk is widely used as intended, of course, but it unexpectedly became a musical instrument in the hands of dub reggae people like King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry.
  • The saxophone (I didn't know this) was apparently intended to have a consistent timbre over a wide pitch range - it wasn't intended for the throaty sounds we often recognise it for these days, and which earned it a firm position in jazz. (OOPS the sax was pre-20th century, my mistake - it doesn't strictly belong on this list.)
  • The vinyl turntable famously wasn't designed to be scratched, and we all know what happened with that in hip-hop and beyond.
  • The development of the electric guitar was clearly driven by the desire simply to make a normal guitar, but amplified. Hendrix and others of course took that as a starting point and went a long way from the acoustic sound.
  • The TB-303 was supposed to be a synth that sounded like a bass guitar. Turn its knobs to high-gain and you get those tearing filter sounds that made acid house. (Indeed it was discontinued before it got really famous, showing just how unexpected that was...)
  • The microphone led to a number of changes in vocal performance style (for example, it allowed vocalists to sing quietly to large audiences rather than belting). The most obvious repurposing is the sophisticated set of mic techniques that beatboxers use to recreate drum/bass/etc sounds.
  • 1980s home computers had simple sound-chips only capable of single sounds. But pioneers like Rob Hubbard broke through these constraints by inventing tricks like the "wobbly-chord", and created a rich genre of 8-bit (and 16-bit) music whose influence keeps spreading.
  • AutoTune was supposed to subtly make your voice sound more in-tune. But ever since the Cher effect, T-Pain et al, many vocalists push it to its limits for a deliberately noticeable effect.

The only successful twentieth-century musical instrument I can think of, that was successful through being used as the designer intended, is the Theremin! (Any others? Don't bother with recent things like the ReacTable or the Tenori-On, they're not widespread and might well be forgotten in a few years.)

So, given this rich history of unexpected repurposing (kinda reminiscent of the fact that you can't predict the impact of science) - if we are designing some new music interface/instrument, what can we do? Do we go back to designing intuitively and for ourselves, since all this user-centred stuff is likely to miss the point? Do we just try building and selling things, and seeing what takes off?

==

One important factor is hackability. There's quite a telling contrast (mentioned in the Redstrom paper) between the "consumer" record player and the "consumer" CD player - in the latter, the mechanisms are quite deliberately hidden away and all you have is a few buttons. The nature and size of vinyl makes that a bit difficult, so most record players have the mechanism exposed, and it's this exposed mechanism that got repurposed by scratch DJs.

(There are people doing weird things with CD players, and hacked CD players are relevant to the glitch aesthetic in digital music. But maybe if the mechanism was more exposed, more people would have come up with more and crazier things to do with them? Who can say.)

But it's not neccessarily a good thing to expose all the mechanism. In digital technology this could end up leading to too-many-sliders and just poor usability.

(Another relevant paper on this topic: Thor Magnusson's "Affordances and constraints" paper, considering how users approach music technologies and their constraints.)

In a paper I wrote with Alex McLean (extended version coming soon, as a book chapter), we argue that the rich composability of grammatical interfaces (such as programming languages) is one way to enable this kind of unbounded hackability without killing usability. Programming languages might not seem like the best example of an approachable musical environment that musicians can fiddle around with, but the basic principle is there, and recent work is making engaging interfaces out of things that we might secretly call programming (e.g. Scratch or the ReacTable).

==

Another factor which is perhaps more subtle is ownership - people need to take ownership of a technology before they invest creative effort in taking it to new places. There was some interesting discussion around this but I personally haven't quite pinned this idea down, though it's obvious that it's important.

For inventors of instruments/interfaces this is quite a tricky factor. Often new interfaces are associated with their inventor, and the inventor generally likes this... Also it's rare that the instrument gets turned into a form (e.g. a simple commercial product) that people can easily take home, live with, take to gigs, etc etc, all without reference to the original inventor or the process of refining original designs etc.

I don't even think I've really pinpointed the ownership issue in this little description... but I think there is something to it.

Wednesday 1st February 2012 | technology | Permalink

Meeting the reacTable

At the SMC 2010 conference I had the opportunity to encounter a reacTable (a tabletop music interface) for real, with an introduction and some tuition by its creator Sergi Jorda. I remember being happy for them when Bjork took a reacTable out on tour, this new music technology getting an airing in front of many thousands of people and generating media interest etc - but at the time, I didn't find the youtube clips particularly inspiring, the reacTable seemed to be being used as a kind of glorified effects unit and slider controller. It wasn't really clear whether the reacTable was an interaction paradigm of its own or just a pretty way to control pd.

Under the hood, the reacTable is indeed controlling a patcher language for audio/music, i.e. something that will be familiar to many electronic music makers. But the basic interaction design is the key. For example, the reacTable is deliberately made circular, so that there's no "privileged position" and small groups of people can interact together on an equal footing.

Photo of us poking a reacTable

The screen is physically not small (about 1m across maybe) but the blocks that you put on it have their own physical size and can't be "minimised" or duplicated like virtual things can - so the interaction is restricted to quite small graphs with a small set of generator/FX units. This limitation constrains it to be more of an instrument-like experience than an unbounded field of electric possibility - not a bad thing, a difference that creates different results, and ensures the system keeps to a manageable level of complexity.

A colleague of mine (Robin Fencott) is studying group interaction in these kind of situations, looking at public/private distinctions and whether people feel willing to modify "each other's" work on a collaborative interface. So I was interested to see how these issues played out on a reacTable, and there are a couple of subtle aspects that bear upon this. For example, the synth/FX blocks on the table are quite "promiscuous" - by default they simply connect to whichever suitable unit is nearest, meaning that if another block comes near, they may instantly disconnect from whatever they were previously linked with and pair with that instead. This starts to break down the distinction between different people's work on the table, since it's easy to accidentally connect your blocks with someone else's, and the physical limitations of the space (already mentioned) make this quite likely. On the other hand, though, different sub-graphs are assigned different colours, mainly to enhance the visual understanding of what's going on, but that does create a slight hint of "mine-vs-yours" when mine and yours are different colours.

Another important aspect of the physicality is that it provides for physical moves similar to what DJs do (scratching, cross-fading, etc). I don't mean the reacTable could be used for scratching - I mean I can imagine reacTable performers evolving a repertoire of physical gestures which make the most of the connection between their hands and the blocks - like DJs did once they discovered that a vinyl mixer could be used for more intricate stuff than simply crossfading every four minutes.

This potential was shown really well in a performance called KVSwalk_SOLO by Juan Parra Cancino, who proved pretty definitively that the reacTable is more than just a glorified pd GUI. He did a solo performance (so it didn't make use of the multi-player potential, but never mind) where he showed off some really deft gestures as he added, pushed, pulled and juggled the blocks around the reacTable surface, and made a great structured piece of music as a result. That for me was the decider - I won't say that Juan Parra is a virtuoso on the reacTable but he convinced me that such a thing is possible.

Sunday 25th July 2010 | technology | Permalink

DAB and DAB+ in the UK

I've repeatedly expressed suspicion about DAB radio, and it seems that takeup is not what the industry hoped for. The BBC managed to cause a big spike in the 6music audience size by threatening to close the station - but then the bulk of that spike was DABless in the sense that the 6music online listening figures doubled compared against a year earlier (listening hours 642,734 in May 09; 1,384,216 in May 10), whereas RAJAR's figures (for a slightly different period since May 10 not available at time of writing) show the overall listening hours grew by around 75% - implying that the growth happened preferentially in online rather than DAB listening.

On Radio 4 there was some discussion today about whether someone buying a DAB radio today would expect it to last as long as a trusty FM radio that they've had for years. (Unfortunately the producers decided to drag the discussion out over multiple days so they only posed the question, claiming the answer will come tomorrow, bleh.)

This is something I hadn't particularly thought about - of course I know that DAB is not destined to last very long, due to various well-known factors such as inferiorities vs. FM, lack of DAB as standard in cars, and the growth of wifi and 3G - but then I remembered that the industry has even published a new improved version of the DAB format called DAB+. This was announced back in 2006, and even though it isn't currently in use in the UK and there don't seem to be any plans to do so, it seems odd to be stuck with an "old" version of the technology when the new one has already been in existence for years. Would you really go and buy a CD rewriter, now that there is not only DVD but also Blu-ray, and now that Apple has taught the big music industry players how to do downloads? What would be the point? It won't be too long before it's difficult/expensive to find blank CDs.

I'm not suggesting that the UK is likely to leap from DAB to DAB+ any time soon. But there are other countries using DAB+, and indeed there are other digital radio standards, and I'm concerned that we might end up stuck with the Betamax of the digital radio world.

So will our existing DAB radios work with DAB+? No. DAB+ is not backward-compatible with DAB, so if you're paranoid about the longevity of your radio then I suppose you'd need to check on the box and make sure that it says it does DAB+. (Frankly I wouldn't put a large bet on DAB+ either, I'd argue that a more generic medium like wireless internet is going to carry the radio of the future.) I went and checked the model of DAB radio that we bought our grandparents for Christmas not so long ago, and the answer is no. The rather reassuring and sturdy-looking design of the radio we bought them may be illusory.

Wednesday 14th July 2010 | technology | Permalink

Openness and innovation in the arts: Puredyne

Just back from giving an invited talk about Puredyne at an Openmute event about "Digital Innovation for the Arts". Claude and I introduced Puredyne as a live-distro tool for real-time multimedia art etc - but we also focused on thinking about lessons from the open-source way which might apply generally to artistic projects who want to move towards open, "co-creative" ways of working.

One thing that is not always said about open-source communities is that there are typically multiple loosely-connected groups, and the loose connections provide the richness that allows projects to thrive. There's even research that seems to bear out this point (e.g. Méndez-Durón and García 2009). So don't focus purely on creating "your" community, but ensure that you enable connections outwards, both in the social interaction and the technical underpinnings (e.g. the reuse of data). This is partly why Twitter is more important than Facebook for some things: the openness of Twitter allows ad-hoc and temporary connections between people who otherwise have no bond.

The loose connections are related to a really useful general concept called peripheral participation. This basically means that in any successful community, yes, there will be die-hard committed members, but there will also be people who drift in and out and may make some small contribution (e.g. a single comment on some issue). It's really important to enable this peripheral engagement and allow people to move from a mild occasional involvement to a deeper involvement - because typically that's the only way that your community effort will maintain the critical mass to carry on. (The availability of routes from casual to hardcore member [and back again] is one of the main insights of the communities of practice model of social organisation.)

Also, since people can "drift" in and out of deep engagement with any community, the focus and aims of that community can evolve - don't assume a constant unchanging core. There must be a focus of some sort, otherwise there's no cohesion of common interest. There doesn't have to be a "leader" (although there can be) but there is still some structure, based around the social network of the community core members - meaning that although there's no hierarchy, there's a difference between a "peripheral" or "drive-by" contributor and a long-term contributor which emerges in the social influence they have in the community. Given that, it's important for "core" members to allow and encourage casual involvement, providing ways for people to get more or less involved as they wish. All successful community projects have a mix of casual and more committed members.

Open-source communities are typically spread across the world and communicate online. To make this work, fast casual communication channels are important: traditionally geeks use IRC chat, but for less geeky projects you could use Twitter/identi.ca or Skype, for example. These enable quick little chats like "Natalie did you do that thing?" "Yes Claude's got it now" - 'disposable' communication which enables speedy co-working.

But many successful open-source projects also have real-world meetups and this has many benefits. It might sound defeatist to say that online communication somehow isn't good enough and that people need to meet in real life, but it's not quite like that. Online communication is great for most of the co-ordination that open projects need, but getting together for a face-to-face session for a couple of days (which coders might call a "hackfest" or "code sprint") enhances this in a couple of ways. Firstly it provides a concentrated time to think/discuss issues in detail, in a "high-bandwidth" way and with few distractions, and there will always be things that need that kind of focus. Secondly it really helps to build personal bonds between people, allowing wider discussion and building the kind of understanding which will improve the remote online communication in future. Even if you're planning something which lives entirely online, if you want to build a strong community then "in-real-life" meetups of some sort are a good idea.

Another lesson from open-source and free-software is that of openness in ownership. I've seen a few examples of "crowdsourcing" and "co-creation" and there's a fuzzy boundary between the kind of thing which is essentially a focus-group or survey but done in a social-web-style, and the kind of thing which expects more creativity and focused input from participants, essentially opening part of the design process up to allow non-professionals in. So in the latter case there's an analogy with the open-source world but one lesson that should be remembered is that if people are really putting constructive effort in, then they need to be treated fairly in terms of their stake in what comes out.

last.fm is a great example of this, a business which was built upon gathering data about musical listening habits - but one of the keys which enabled last.fm to develop as strongly as they did was that the resulting data wasn't locked away in some company safe, it was republished under a Creative Commons license. This meant that users could feel confident that they were not being short-changed, that they were not volunteering personal data simply to some corporation but to a communal dataset which can be used for other purposes. So if "co-creation" is to continue as a way of doing things then it must treat the non-professional co-creators fairly in the ownership of the output.

This openness often ends up with some form of available "open data" which people can repurpose for other uses. This can be quite intimidating for some organisations, a partial relinquishing of control, but its consequences are often that some other group can connect to your data and do something great with it that you couldn't have predicted. See BBC Backstage for one initiative which encourages this - and think back to the concept of multiple loosely-connected groups, which stimulates the development of communities. Publicly open data is one way organisations can lay the foundations for such connections to happen.

Monday 26th April 2010 | technology | Permalink

Could we power Britain on drizzle power?

Britain has good stocks of renewable energy - plenty of waves, plenty of wind, plenty of tide - but not much sun. The one thing we do have plenty of is drizzle. Could we power the national grid by harvesting the energy in light rain? If so, Manchester would be lit up like Blackpool Illuminations!

You can actually work out how much power we might get out of the rain. Say you have a house with a roof that's got 10m2 of surface area, for the rain to fall on. Now imagine you have some kind of special covering on that roof which takes the kinetic energy from all those falling raindrops and turns it into electricity. How much electricity would you get?

  • Average rainfall varies around the country and around the year. But the total annual rainfall at Manchester Airport is 800mm, which is 2.2mm per day. So you multiply that by the surface area of the house and you get 0.022 m3 of rain falling on the house every day.
  • How fast are the raindrops going when they hit the roof? The terminal velocity of rain varies according to how fine the rain is, between about 2 m/s and 9 m/s. Let's use a speed of 4 m/s.
  • So how much energy is there? Remembering back to physics at school, kinetic energy is half times mass times speed2. The mass of the water is the volume times the density (about 1 million grams per cubic metre). So the energy is 0.5 * 0.022 * 1000000 * 42. That's 176,000 joules.
  • So now we convert energy-per-day into a power measured in Watts. The grand total: 2.037 Watts!

Hm. Great. You also have to take into account the inefficent conversion - no device could really capture all the energy from the rain. So let's say that optimistically you could get about 1 Watt of power from the rain falling on your house roof. That's certainly not going to power your lightbulbs. So that's why there aren't companies selling drizzle-power systems...

Thursday 30th July 2009 | technology | Permalink

Audio converter box for headphone-level to line-level

The first bit of circuitry I've made in many many years (I am mostly virtual these days), and it worked! Here it is. If you're a circuits person you will sneer at its simplicity:

What does it do? It takes the headphone signal from a laptop and reduces the audio to the right level for plugging into our hi-fi. It has a switch (a DPDT, the shaded box) to nicely silence the sound without the hi-fi going buzzzzz

The tricky thing is that "headphone level" and "line level" aren't very rigidly defined. The circuit reduces the signal by a factor of 52, but at first I read on the internet that reducing it by about 5 would be enough. Did some tests with a voltmeter and 5 was nowhere near enough.

(By the way: we were thinking about getting a wifi-audio thingy (eg airtunes) to send sound around the house. Then we realised that wifi-audio has crappy latency, besides being expensive. This little box cost about 7 quid for all the parts...)

Tuesday 13th January 2009 | technology | Permalink

How can we make myspace worse?

How can we make myspace worse?

Hmm... tough call.

I know! Let's update the music player, so that rather than eating up 100% of the power of an ordinary desktop computer, it uses 130% of it. Then it can't even play music without stuttering horribly.

Geniuses

Thursday 9th October 2008 | technology | Permalink

iPhone vs Nokia

iPhone vs Nokia. What a webpage

Thursday 18th September 2008 | technology | Permalink

xkcd on voting machines

xkcd hits the nail on the head, re voting machines:

xkcd comic strip 463

This is based on yet another voting-machine cockup. All these stories tend to come from the US, let's hope that UK officials understand that paper voting is demonstrably safer and better than electronic voting for all sorts of reasons.

Friday 22nd August 2008 | technology | Permalink

Get it out of your head and into the machines

"Get it out of your head and into the machines. Stop talking stop arguing. Let the machines talk and argue. A tape recorder is an externalised section of the human nervous system. You can find out more about the nervous system and gain more control over your reaction by using a tape recorder than you could find out sitting twenty years in the lotus posture. Whatever your problem is just throw it into the machines and let them chew it around a while. There is of course the initial problem: programming tape recorders is an expensive deal any way you wire it."

[WS Burroughs; The Ticket That Exploded; p136]

Saturday 19th July 2008 | technology | Permalink

NIME 2008, Genoa

Photo of a Genoa street Genoa is an intriguing city to wander around: very multi-level (cos of the hills), and the old town centre is made of winding narrow streets crammed with tall buildings and the occasional surprising church. And somewhere in the middle of that is Casa Paganini, the main venue for the NIME 2008 conference.

Photo of lecture hall at Casa Paganini

Met plenty of good people, had some good encounters. Various discussions with people about evaluating musical interfaces (something I'm working on at the moment), including Marcelo Wanderley and Chris Kiefer among others. Photo of neat kalimba interface by Adrian Freed Adrian Freed gave an interesting talk on components for building cool new interfaces - resistive rubber bands etc. His DIY electro kalimba was a very neat little example. My talk went well, I think, and also the demo sessions where I demonstrated my voice-timbre-remapping system (loads of thanks to Rob for design thoughts and pep talk which helped me get the visualisation up and running!).

Photo of participant using my vocal timbre system

Nice italian food too, e.g. in the café called -∑ p log p, worth mentioning for the name alone...

Photo of lunch

Sunday 8th June 2008 | technology | Permalink

Don't OPEN any email marked New shopping new life

Just a warning, seems to be a virus going around. If you get an email that seems to come from someone you know, with the title "New shopping new life", DON'T EVEN OPEN IT. Delete it unread.

Here's one link

It hijacked a friend of mine's hotmail.

Friday 11th January 2008 | technology | Permalink

On mobile phones

I'm thinking of getting a mobile phone after many years of holding out. It's worth writing down my thoughts so I don't forget.

Why have I resisted mobile phones? A vague bundle of things, mostly the following diverse bundle of reasons:

  • Mobile phones and the internet came along at almost the same time, and they represented two very different ways of joining the world up. The internet was open, collaborative and constructive, and designed with ideals such as archiving human knowledge. Mobile phones were proprietary networks in which people could communicate with each other but on a strict fee-paying basis, and with no collaboration or creativity - not building anything, just paying some company to be allowed to talk to your friends. I didn't want to support the latter view of the world, and in particular, I didn't want it to push the former view out of the arena.

    Things are slightly different these days but not much. If it hadn't been for some of the most genius web developments (namely: Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, RSS) it's likely that the internet would slowly have been sidelined. But actually these developments have been amazingly productive and have made a lot of the collaborative, creative aspects of the web completely irreplaceable in modern life. So phone-network technology and web technology is mostly converging rather than competing, for the time being at least.

  • Ringtones are awful. Perfectly sane people, friends of mine, have such garish and horrible ringtones that you start to doubt their taste. Presumably people get used to their own ringtones very quickly and don't notice? But whether in MIDI or MP3, the first three or four seconds of some pop or classical tune is extremely irritating. Sound effects (a gong, thunder, whatever) are less irritating but a bit more embarrassing.... As a musician and/or someone who works with sound, ringtones for me are mostly audio pollution and make me want to stab people. I'm intending to make sure I can customise my ringtone and load sounds I've designed myself. The intention will be abstract sounds that are neither sound effects nor music: abstract enough to be meaningless and therefore not irritating for people. (I still need to be able to hear it though :)

  • Always-on life is not good. To be out of contact for half an hour or an hour - and, even more, to have nothing to do for half an hour - is a good thing. It forces you to think things through in uninterrupted stretches, for example. Or read a book. I really do pity people who sit on the tube twiddling away at some crappy java game where they have to make coloured blocks vanish. If they just put the phone away and stared into space instead they'd think more. And no, those java games aren't training your mind or your thumb in any useful way. (In the same way, TV makes you feel like you're not wasting time but then you realise the whole evening's gone.)

  • I like email. It's brill. For really short co-ordinating messages (like "just leaving now") texts are definitely more appropriate; but for almost everything else, emails are blatantly better.

  • A very geeky reason: over the past couple of years I was waiting for a decent open-source Linux phone that I could program. Those things almost exist (OpenMoko) and they'll be pretty common within a couple of years at most, so eventually I'll get one. But for the moment I'll just get some standard mediumish handset. Actually maybe it's not so geeky. The main reason is that I don't like the closedness of phones stopping you doing things - if I want to transfer my contacts to my computer, or to another phone, why shouldn't I? etc. These things are now more possible than they were.

  • When I was younger I used to spend ages on massive phone conversations with friends. I really liked that aspect of landline phones, spending hours chatting and very privately, as opposed to a brief check-in with someone while you've got five minutes on the bus. I'm not as convinced of that difference as I used to be, though. I have less of those massive conversations anyway; whether it's cos I'm in a different stage of life or cos everyone's on mobiles, who knows. Slightly related: the sound quality on mobiles is still awful after all these years. Presumably quantity rather than quality is the rule. Remember landline phones when you could hear what was going on at the other end? Mmm nice. Not like mobiles where you have to guess whether the background noise is a kettle or a bus.

  • I always used to like payphones. But that was back when it was much cheaper to make a payphone call than a mobile phone call, and these days it's ridiculously expensive to make a one-minute payphone call.

Fine. So why have I given in now? Partly because it's been frustrating trying to arrange to meet people (specifically, for my experiment at uni) and that would be much easier with a mobile. Partly because it'd be much easier to make arrangements with Philippa (e.g. when someone at uni suggests going to the pub). Partly because of the accumulated handiness of a phone that can act as a memory stick, a crappy camera, a crappy MP3 player, a crappy calendar, (...etc) - various slightly crap functions that added together are fairly handy. Partly to keep in touch with certain friends. But it's mainly the frustrations outbalancing my reservations, some of which have faded or can be mitigated.

So, if I do get a mobile, I really hope that I don't end up fiddling around with crappy java games, I hope I turn it off often enough to be out of reach occasionally, and also that texts don't take over from emails too much. I also hope my weirdy ringtones don't annoy any of you out there :)

Saturday 29th December 2007 | technology | Permalink

What I found on last.fm

last.fm is an interesting service, it monitors what music you listen to and claims it can recommend you new music you'll like, based on your taste. I've been using it for a while now. I think it's got an OK amount of data about what I listen to, since it's got a massive list of tracks from me. The recommendations have been a bit hit-and-miss.

First the negative. Here are some of the disappointing connections:

  • While I was listening to Blur, it listed similar artists as Oasis and a couple of other well-known britpop bands (The Verve, Pulp, Radiohead). Those aren't "similar", they're just part of the same milieu. Oasis and Blur might both be guitary indie-rock from the late 90s but beyond that they're musically so different, in the chords, the melodies, the lyrics, and the overall sound. A decent "similar artists" listing would find some bands that were perhaps less famous but more similar.
  • I really like Messiaen so I let it play me Messiaen "similar artists radio". The result was mostly a stream of tacky sentimental classical music in straightforward major keys, nothing like the sound of Messiaen.
  • Similarly, I went starting from the 20th-century composer Xenakis, and it basically played me an arbitrary set of 20th-century composers, none of the pieces sounding like Xenakis' stuff at all. I can think of rock bands whose stuff sounds more like Xenakis (e.g. some of Sonic Youth's stuff has headed that way), but that sort of interesting connection doesn't seem to pop out of last.fm's database.
  • For some reason it also keeps recommending me various weedy folk things. Folk can be good, I'm not slagging off folk music in general, but I'm a bit puzzled because it's recommending me rather delicate-yet-straightforward folk music which isn't really my thing. I don't know what it is about my listening history that leads it to recommend that kind of thing. I've listened to a bit of Belle and Sebastian, but beyond that...

On the other hand, it's definitely popped out some stuff which I didn't know before, and I really like:

  • The Blood Brothers - this is the one brill recommendation that I think was just based on other things I've listened to. It played me their track "Devastator" which is absolutely wicked.
  • Giya Kancheli - It played me one of his symphonies during the Xenakis-based random walk of 20th-century-classical. His stuff is nothing like Xenakis. His symphony #4 was amazing though, definitely going to buy that.
  • You Slut! - I already had one track by You Slut! which I really like; so it played me another one. Not the most magically-inspired recommendation then, but it's good that it reminded me about them - they're wicked, nice mixture of math-rock and heavy.
  • Animal Collective - not a recommendation, I just listened to a stream of a friend's tracks and it contained some great stuff by Animal Collective.
  • I listened to some side-projects connected to cLOUDDEAD people, such as Doseone, and their stuff is cool so I bought a couple of those things.

So, so far, I'm finding new things but very little of it is due to the machine-learning power of their automatic recommendation system, and (as someone who studies this kind of thing) that's a bit disappointing. For example, I would have expected it to recommend me some stuff which I already like, but which it doesn't yet know that I like. That would be a good confirmation that it's doing something clever. Hasn't happened yet. It's still early days though.

Its similarity measurement is largely behaving like "people who bought X also bought Y", which although useful is not as clever as I was hoping. To start recommending interesting things, it needs to be able to bust out of the coincidental connections caused by certain groups of people happening to have been exposed to certain things (e.g. Oasis and Blur, musically there's no strong connection). It kind of needs to have some kind of reverse of the record-shop-style classification system: for example, last.fm enforces no division between classical and pop/rock, but there's a division due to external factors which kind of leak into the data, so maybe it would be clever if it could balance those out somehow.

Despite that criticism, it's a really nice service, a good way to wander around looking for new music; and it's "non-evil" in that it licences its data in a fairly friendly way (creative commons) to allow you to use its data feeds for other purposes. I wrote a little script to archive its feed of what I listen to, so maybe in a while I'll have a handy little database of music I can do things with.

Monday 19th November 2007 | technology | Permalink

Help the poor: turn their wood into heat into sound into electricity

"Rural communities in the developing world could soon be using a combined cooker, electricity generator and fridge powered by a system that turns heat from burning wood into sound waves." IET Engineering & Technology, June 2007

??

Is it April the first?

No it's not April the first

This is a weird but fascinating technological development. It's a very large and well-funded project to improve the efficiency of energy use in impoverished places, and develop a robust piece of equipment that people all round the world can use.

Crazy as it seems, using a simple open wood fire is less efficient than the proposed technique, which involves: burning wood in a special chamber that heats gas "patchily" in a specific way that produces sound, then converting that sound to electricity.

The project is here: the SCORE project (warning - the site is a complete botch). Here's a pleasant little intro to the phenomenon of thermoacoustics.

Thursday 7th June 2007 | technology | Permalink

AY sound chip: pitch

This is very geeky but someone else out there might appreciate this info. I was just analysing an AY sound chip emulator (the libayemu one) and trying to work out how its "tone" control relates to the actual note that is produced. It seems to be an inverse relationship, something like this:

frequency = (109300 / tone) + 3.70727

tone = 109300 / (frequency - 3.70727)

It's not a perfect approximation but it works pretty well.

Tuesday 15th May 2007 | technology | Permalink

Faults and projects, and Feynman

I just spent a few frustrating days trying to locate the fault in an experiment I've been programming and running in SuperCollider. Finally, at 6:40 this evening I found the problem and fixed it. It was a relatively simple fault in the way one of my components worked.

It reminded me really strongly of Richard Feyman's Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle, which someone recommended to me once. Anyone who has ever run a project or tried to write more than two lines of computer code should read this article and take it seriously. There's some interesting stuff about the space shuttle, but even more there's a lot of wisdom about how to make things go right and how to make things go wrong.

Monday 4th December 2006 | technology | Permalink

The curse of bass, and the future of hi-fi

When you live above neighbours who don't give a shit and who never answer the door, and then play loud bassy music all weekend, it's depressing. It's kind of similar to the curse of those stupid cars with extremely loud woofers in - you get loads of those in East London. When a car goes past my office and literallly fills the room with loud bass, rattling the windows and other loose objects, the thing that I don't get is: how loud is the bass inside the actual car? Is it really mind-meltingly loud? Or is it actually quieter than the bass we experience from 10 metres away through a brick wall? Most likely it is quieter, because bass frequencies take a few metres to develop into coherent waves (because the sound wavelength becomes long enough to be comparable with the size of the resonant object) so the person driving the car probably doesn't get the "full benefit" of their speakers. (The point of those car systems is for showing off too, so in a sense they do get the full benefit.) It's similar for the neighbours downstairs - a lot of their bass leaks out into the surroundings, which presumably is an unintended side-effect.

The answer isn't to make hi-fis which don't make loud bass, because no-one would buy them. But I wonder if there could be a technology which generates bass in a more specifically localised way, rather than the traditional way? There are technologies based on multiple speaker arrays (e.g. this magnetic audio device) or on ultrasonic interference techniques (e.g. this american patent for ultrasonic audio projection) which can transmit sound in a focussed way - the sound doesn't just radiate out from some object. These techniques are a long way away from being used in home hi-fis, but maybe one day they'll become relevant.

I can imagine the home hi-fi makers would like to be able to market something with this kind of projection in. Imagine being able to put your hi-fi "speakers" anywhere you wanted (e.g. somewhere out of the way) and having the sound appear to come from wherever - from the middle of the room, from the telly, or following you as you move around the house. That has some nice potential. Perhaps as a side effect, this kind of sound production would have less leakage (because it uses interference effects to strengthen the signal where it's aimed, and similarly to suppress the signal where it's unwanted). It could in theory waste less power in the same way modern lightbulbs do - by dissipating less energy in unwanted forms (or unwanted directions, in the case of sound). Let's look forward to that.

Sunday 12th November 2006 | technology | Permalink

DAB radio is not a liberating technology

DAB radio is not a liberating technology. Here's why:

AM/FM radio receivers:

  1. are technologically very simple - you can produce or receive radio signals with literally half a dozen commonly-available components, costing a total of about 50p;
  2. take relatively little power - check out the wind-up radio.

DAB radio is much more intricate to produce and receive. DAB radio signals are produced by taking a whole selection of channels (e.g. the entire BBC output), digitally encoding them, and mixing all these channels into a single digital signal which is then broadcast on multiple frequencies at once. In order to receive DAB radio, a unit needs to listen to all (or most) of these frequencies in order to get a clear digital signal, then "demux" (separate out) the various channels bound up in the signal. It discards the unwanted channels then decodes the chunks for the channel you want to listen to. This means that it:

  1. requires much more complicated circuitry - vastly impractical for home-made radios;
  2. takes much more power - for example, a 60-second wind on the Freeplay Devo DAB Wind Up Radio plays 1 hour of FM but only 3-5 minutes of DAB (source). So the power requirements are at least twelve times as high.

Proponents of DAB say that it's interference-free and CD-quality, both of which claims are simply false. I've had DAB interference problems while standing still and literally within a line-of-sight of one of the transmitters in London. And the quality is never CD-quality because in practice it's always compressed in a "lossy" fashion, the extent depending on the channel - so at best it's very-good-MP3-quality, and typically worse than that.

One advantage I do credit to DAB is that there's no need to change frequencies from place to place, so you can get a continuous signal even on a long motorway journey without having to re-tune. But then again there's an added disadvantage which is that the DAB decoding process delays the signal by a second or two, so there's no way to get the sound exactly in sync if you have two or more radios turned on in your house.


The move to DAB is technically very similar to the transition from vinyl to CD. However, CD has proved to be a liberating technology thanks to the CD-R, allowing people to distribute music and data on their own initiative and in their own unmediated networks. DAB radio is different because it reduces citizens' ability to be producers, rather than increasing it - we can only be consumers with DAB.

So, for example, as far as I can tell it'll be a lot harder for the pirate radio stations to operate in the DAB space. They'll probably just move to internet MP3 streaming instead, since those can be produced from any home computer with a little bit of free software. (But watch out there too - companies like Apple and Microsoft are trying to replace unrestricted formats like MP3 with DRM [Digital Restrictions Management] formats of their own. Apple has been a key player in elbowing the open Ogg formats out of the picture.)

Radio has a grand tradition of being a liberating technology (much more so than TV), and Trevor Bayliss's wind-up radios were a revolutionary idea because they gave poor people the ability to educate and inform themselves even without access to electricity. The switch-over to digital radio looks set to hobble the medium for very little benefit.

Friday 22nd September 2006 | technology | Permalink

dyne:bolic

dyne:bolic is the cleverest little thing in the world: It's a version of Linux that can be run from a CD, without having to install anything on the hard drive. Not only that, but it's designed as a multimedia activist tool - it comes preloaded with lots of great audio and video software, so you can carry a CD around with you and quickly boot up any ordinary PC into a creative multimedia environment.

It's been around for while but some of the recent features have really caught my attention: the ability to "nest" and store data on a USB stick or hard drive, or even to modify the way the system works and re-save it onto a CD-RW. This has inspired one group of people to modify dyne:bolic into pure:dyne, a version that includes the Pure Data and SuperCollider live synthesis environments. I'm running it on a PC laptop and it's very nice. A couple of glitches (it didn't seem to recognise double-clicks on first boot, but it's worked fine ever since) but very promising.

I really like the main developer's attitude too. Seems to come from a rastafarian tradition and is keen to make sure the system can work on all manner of cheap and low-spec computers:

the roots of dyne:bolic are to support unexpensive hardware for the poors and exploited people of this world, and to provide technology for the revolution. of course it's a multimedia distribution: because there is no revolution without dancing ;)
Saturday 2nd September 2006 | technology | Permalink

Blackboard patent kerfuffle items

Those of you who aren't involved in online teaching technology will not have heard the almighty commotion caused by Blackboard Inc's patent actions. Not only has it been awarded a highly specious US patent which covers pretty much the basic functions of most VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments), but it immediately launched a lawsuit against a company called Desire2Learn for patent infringement. This aggressive action is clearly an attempt to wound competitors rather than to protect intellectual property, especially when you consider that there's an enormous wealth of prior art which should prove the patent groundless very easily. Nevertheless, no company or community should have to spend money on lawyers to defend itself against specious patents like this.

One writer has published a nice graphical explanation of the content of the patent. Michael Feldstein has written some interesting comments, including an article about how such patents can stifle innovation, irrespective of whether the patents are directly used to stifle a given competitor. The company eCollege issued a press release arguing that the patent was invalid. (I hadn't heard of eCollege before but it's good to see these kind of statements coming from companies with paid lawyers....) And a community site has been set up, noedupatents.org, to gather information and provide guidance for those who wish to help fight the patent. Interesting times.

Tuesday 8th August 2006 | technology | Permalink

Our new Acoustic Energy wi-fi radio

We received our Acoustic Energy wi-fi radio yesterday and it's absolutely fantastic. Since this is a relatively new technology I expected there to be interface/useability issues but it works so well and so straightforwardly. We plugged it in, told it which wireless network was ours (and what the password was), and within a few seconds we had a massive international range of streamed radio stations to listen to!

The sound quality is very good - the speaker is clear and the flat bottom of the unit makes good contact with the table to give a bit of added bass resonance. One thing which I didn't realise was that as well as radio streams, the unit can also browse and connect to certain 'listen again' features (like the ones provided by the BBC) which is an added bonus, and again works very smoothly.

One thing I really like is the strategy of being able to upgrade the firmware (the radio's internal logic, essentially) remotely at the touch of a button. This means that the company can push out improvements and added features without us having to pay another £200 for a newer model. Their website hints that they're planning to add Ogg Vorbis support as well as MP3/WMA/Real, which would definitely be good. But even more interesting would be the suggestion from another blogger that, "Of course, streaming MP3 podcasts is completely within this unit's technical capability: so it would be interesting to see whether a forthcoming firmware update would allow it to do that." That would be an absolutely excellent addition.

Any quibbles? Only one or two minor ones. As another blogger commented, the backlit screen dims a little bit but nowhere near enough to have it by your bedside! We put it by the bed last night but ended up covering the screen with something. (Considering that the radio has an alarm-clock feature, it's a shame they didn't think of this.)

Another small one is that when you press pause and then play, the unit has to re-buffer the sound so there's an added delay. (I can imagine that it would be technically not-too-straightforward to add a second internal buffer to overcome this, so I'm not expecting this to change soon.)

In fact, the buffering is the only significant problem when compared against ordinary radio, but I'm afraid that's a built-in limitation of internet-streamed radio. This unit copes very well and on most channels it doesn't do any dropping-out-and-rebuffering while you're trying to listen. It really is ten times better than a DAB radio.

Saturday 31st December 2005 | technology | Permalink

Wi-fi radio - better than DAB?

I've just read about some very interesting wi-fi radios. This wifi radio is a really good-looking object, with a very sensible-sounding design. It would be great to have something just like a normal radio but which can pick up internet-streamed radio from anywhere in the world!

This could blow DAB away, for in-the-home use at least. It does require you to have broadband wireless internet in your home, but then that's fast becoming the standard package that all the ISPs are offering.

I've always been suspicious of DAB radio, and puzzled as to why the UK government seems so keen to jump away from analogue radio to this digital replacement. The trumpeted advantage of DAB is that it's "perfect" digital quality, with no interference, but that is quite simply a lie. We have DAB radios in our house and they do get interference - if the signal is not strong enough you get a sound like blowing-into-a-milkshake. (And we live in London so it's hardly a poor-reception area!)

One definite advantage of DAB is that it will work well in cars and other mobile situations, since it doesn't suffer from the standard AM/FM problem of radio transmitters overlapping and interfering with each other, which means that if you're driving up the motorway you might have to retune to different frequencies simply to keep listening to the same station the whole way along. But then I don't drive so it's not much of an advantage for me. The only "advantage" I'm left with is the silly bit of scrolly text that is broadcast along with each DAB station's signal, which is just as annoying as scrolly text always is...

DAB has added drawbacks over analogue radio, including (1) the signal is delayed by different amounts by different radios, so they're not all in sync with each other, and (2) the technology involved is more expensive and convoluted (so, for example, the wind-up radios pioneered by a British inventor would not be so cheap or durable if they were DAB).

So anyway - the advantages of these new wifi radios over DAB are clear to me. (1) There should be no interference at all, since it's coming down your telephone line - although of course the "reception" depends on your internet connection and your wireless router both being generally reliable. (2) You can listen to a whole variety of radio streams, not just streams published by people with radio broadcast licences - should open up a whole palette of amateur and semi-amateur stations to tune in to. (3) And you can listen to streams from around the world, not just UK stations. (I'll be able to listen to RUV, for example, the Icelandic equivalent of the BBC.) I should admit though that the two DAB disadvantages I mentioned above are also disadvantages for wifi radio.

Someone pointed out elsewhere, that the system I referred to earlier relies on the company's website to provide an up-to-date database of radio streams. That means that they can in theory filter or control the list of stations that appears, and also that if they go out of business the unit may become useless. Definitely worth bearing in mind! However, I would hope (and this is only a hope, nothing like a certainty) that it might be possible to reverse-engineer the communication so that it could be possible to update the list yourself.

Wednesday 28th December 2005 | technology | Permalink

PSP

Just a quick note with a prediction: Sony's Playstation Portable will not be anything special, from the perspective of the history of video games.

I've had a hunch about it all along. I was compelled to spell it out (just for future reference) when I read this quote in a BBC news article: "It is only so often that an iconic gadget comes along. The iPod is one of them and this is the next one," said Jason Jenkins, deputy editor of T3 gadget magazine.

No way! The iPod is an iconic gadget, the original Gameboy was an iconic gadget, but this thing just isn't. Look at its nothingy design. That's not the only reason I don't think it's a big deal, but I'm not aiming to rant here, I just want to record the note.

Thursday 1st September 2005 | technology | Permalink
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