Friday, June 30, 2006

The eyes have it

New Scientist reports:

We all know the scene: the departmental coffee room, with the price list for tea and coffee on the wall and the “honesty box” where you pay for your drinks – or not, because no one is watching.

In a finding that will have office managers everywhere scurrying for the photocopier, researchers have discovered that merely a picture of watching eyes nearly trebled the amount of money put in the box.

Melissa Bateson and colleagues at Newcastle University, UK, put up new price lists each week in their psychology department coffee room. Prices were unchanged, but each week there was a photocopied picture at the top of the list, measuring 15 by 3 centimetres, of either flowers or the eyes of real faces. The faces varied but the eyes always looked directly at the observer.

In weeks with eyes on the list, staff paid nearly three times as much for their drinks as in weeks with flowers. “Frankly we were staggered by the size of the effect,” Gilbert Roberts, one of the researchers, told New Scientist.

Eyes are known to be a powerful perceptual signal for humans. People behave more cooperatively when they are being “watched” by a cute image of a robot or even abstract “eye spots” on a computer screen.

But this, says Roberts, is the first time anyone has observed the effect in a natural situation, with people using their own money.

It could have far-reaching implications. In previous experiments, people consistently appeared to behave more generously than they needed to for their own self-interest, even when told their actions were anonymous. This has led an influential school of economists to argue that altruism in humans is innate, rather than being based on cynical self-interest.

But if just a photocopied pair of eyes can treble honesty, the Newcastle team suspects that these previous experiments may somehow have been spoiled by subliminal cues that made people feel they were being watched.

In other words, self-interest may play a large part after all, with people feeling the need to be seen as honest. “Those results might need to be re-examined,” says Roberts.

Meanwhile, the Newcastle team wants to repeat the work with more people, in different situations, perhaps posting pictures of eyes where tickets are sold for public transport. They would also like to discover what kind of eyes work best.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Free, legal contemporary music site

Reloda is a UK music site offering a wide range of demos and sessions in MP3 format. You'll find the Arctic Monkeys rubbing artfully distressed denims with Yo La Tengo and Cat Power... and it claims to be legal (what is the Latin for 'downloader beware'?).

Thanks to Shaun for the link.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Fujifilm FinePix F30: First impressions

Up until last Friday I possessed two cameras. My 'proper' camera is a Sigma SD9, a bulky and unsophisticated digital SLR with one saving grace, its Foveon image sensor, which is capable of recording some of the most beautiful digital images I have seen from any digital camera.

Because of its bulk (especially when combined with an extra lens, batteries, chargers, flash attachment...) I don't carry the Sigma with me everywhere I go. This job was (until last Friday) taken by a Pentax Optio 555, a chubby but portable camera with a decent lens and CCD. For the last 18 months it has gone everywhere with me. I was so happy with it that when I went on holiday to Crete with my kidz last summer, I left the Sigma at home. There were a couple of occasions when I wished I had taken the Sigma, but the images the Pentax recorded will provide me with perfectly acceptable memories of our time in Greece.

The Optio 555 has some major failings. Its start up time is slow (up to 6 seconds) and its 'shutter lag' (the time taken between pressing the button to take a photo and the photo actually being taken) has meant that I've missed capturing a number of shots. And while the images it captures are excellent, this only occurs when its CCD's sensitivity is set to ISO 64, the equivalent of having a 'slow' film in a conventional camera. This means that taking hand-held pictures in anything other than bright daylight is problematic.

However, up until recently, there hasn't been anything else that was 'better-enough' to justify trading it in. I looked at some of the new Pentax and Nikon compacts, but their speed and light-sensitivity weren't that much better. Casio and Fuji offerings were faster, but the image quality was suspect.

The Fujifilm F30 was announced earlier this year, and its selling points were clear... up to ISO 3200 light-sensitivity, ultra fast start-up speed with imperceptible 'shutter lag', all in a small form-factor with a huge, bright LCD, and excellent battery life. It became available in the UK last week. I purchased one last Friday.

It looks beautiful, the design is elegant, yet robust, with the two main niggles being the fragile, fiddly plastic cover for the USB and power sockets, and the plastic tripod thread.

The LCD screen is so clear and bright (when you select the 60 frames per second refresh rate) that the lack of an optical viewfinder is not missed, and the menu system is ugly but well thought out, with the most used functions available via buttons on the rear of the camera.

Focussing is fast and accurate, even in very low-light... which is fortunate, as this is a camera that works in VERY low light. Indoor and evening pictures can be achieved without flash, allowing natural-looking shots to be taken in nearly any situation, especially as the shutter-lag really is imperceptible, you press the button, and the picture is taken. There is even a superb function where you keep the shutter held down, and the camera takes a stream of pictures, only keeping the three just before you 'release' the shutter. Great for those 'waiting for something to happen' shots

But what about image quality?

First a 400 x 270 pixel crop of a shot taken with the Fuji at ISO 100.

The Pentax at ISO 100 gives this result:

I prefer this image, there is more 'noise', but where the Fuji's processing 'flattens' the image, the Pentax's software retains the detail, making the edges of the text more 'real'.

However, when the ISO is cranked up to 3200 on the Fuji we get an image like this:

Detail has been lost, and there is a 'smearing' effect, but the image is still remarkably clear, especially when not viewed at such a revealing magnification.

The Pentax only goes up to an ISO 400 setting, but by underexposing two stops, then post-processing in Photoshop, I have mimicked an ISO value of 1600:

Noise is now extremely noticeable, and even at 'normal' magnifcations, the image appears 'harsh' and 'grainy'.

For a more 'real-world' shot, I arranged the following set:

I then took a series of shots with the F30 at ISO 100, 800 and 3200, then cropped a 400 x 270 pixel section of each one:

ISO 100

ISO 800

ISO 3200

The progressive degradation in image quality on the two higher speed images is quite obvious, with the in-camera image-processing smearing the details. However, the fact that I can now take a blur-free, hand-held picture in nearly any situation more than outweighs this, and when the pictures are viewed in iPhoto, or on ink-jet prints, the 'digital cellulite' isn't nearly as noticeable.

As with all technology, the F30 isn't perfect. I wish I had some kind of control over the in-camera image-processing. The Optio 555 allows you to adjust sharpness, saturation and contrast. I'd have liked the option of RAW and TIFF formats, with the F30 all I get is two levels of JPEG compression.

However, I have to keep reminding myself that this is a credit card-size camera, weighing less than 200g, which is allowing me to record very acceptable images in just about any situation. The F30 is a keeper.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Largest charitable donation EVER!

Warren Buffett, the world's second richest man, has pledged $30.7 billion (yes, that is $30,700,000,000, double Iceland's gross national product!) of his $44 billion fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

This year the Gates' Foundation will receive half a million shares worth around $1.5 billion. In total, Buffett has pledged 10 million shares to the foundation, which will receive a further five per cent of the total, each year, for as long as either Bill or Melinda Gates remains involved with the charity.

Despite his immense wealth, Buffett is famous for his unpretentious and frugal lifestyle. He continues to live in the same house he bought in 1958 for $31,500. His annual chairman's salary from Berkshire Hathaway is $100,000.

Like the Gates, Buffett does not intend his progeny to inherit a significant proportion of his wealth. These actions are consistent with statements he has made in the past indicating his opposition to the transfer of great fortunes from one generation to the next.

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, it is the largest charitable donation ever made. Buffett, who plays Bridge with Gates, said he had chosen to donate the money to the Gates' foundation because he isn't as suited to philanthropy as the Microsoft founder.

The Gates' are said to be 'awed' by the donation.

Monday, June 26, 2006

What's right with this picture?

Casio has recently announced its latest compact camera. The EX-Z1000 manages to cram 10 megapixels into a 92 x 58 x 22mm case (think of an inch-thick credit card).

Along with the usual slew of features and special effects, there is one option called 'best shot', takes a 3 megapixel shot of the area you are focussing on, while simultaneously recording a 10 megapixel image of this area, plus the area surrounding it. This is designed for people who have a tendency for 'chopping' the heads off people, or steeples off churches, allowing them to re-crop the picture in image-editing software later on.

Now, this made me think about my recent blog about Stephen Wiltshire, and a less-recent one about aerial panoramas. Stephen remembers every detail of the scenes he looks at, and is able to 'stitch' them back together again later. What if the cameras of the future had a lens apparatus that took a gigapixel picture similar to these panoramic pictures.

Of course, getting the lens 100-feet in the air might be a problem, so maybe we'll have to settle for a 360-degree horizontal view (cue a new 'hold mobile phone above head when taking shots' craze).

You could then browse through the 'flattened' picture at your leisure, and choose the portion(s) you wanted.

And why not throw in an HDR imaging system? This takes three identically framed pictures, one under-exposed, one correctly exposed, and one over-exposed, then blends them together in software to create a picture with far more detail than would be possible using conventional photographic methods.

Now, I can already hear howls of protest from 'proper' photographers saying that it takes all the skill out of photography. However, people will still need to choose the 'best bits'... and the HDR method can lead to bland and uninteresting images without the right 'eye' to decide how much light and shade to mix in.

There was a time when only someone with photographic equipment worth tens of thousands of pounds could take professional-looking images. Now someone with a camera costing under £500 can record an image good enough to grace the cover of a glossy magazine.

Is this a good or bad thing? Discuss.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Move over OSX, BumpTop is coming!

I can still remember how bowled-over I was by my first experience of the Macintosh operating system... a desktop, folders to put things in, a trash can, the ability to point, click and grab... using a MOUSE!!! Well that was 1986, and 20 years later I've just seen something that makes OSX look tired.

Visit GearLive for a 6-minute video and a brief explanation of a very interesting experiment in how we could interact with computers.

Thanks to Conrad for pointing this one out.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Liquid armour reports: (edited)

Shear thickening fluid is a mixture of hard nanoparticles and non-evaporating liquid. It flows normally under low-energy conditions, but when agitated or hit with an impact it stiffens and behaves like a solid. This temporary stiffening occurs less than a millisecond after impact, and is caused by the nanoparticles forming tiny clusters inside the fluid. The particles jam up forming a log jam structure that prevents things from penetrating through them.

When a material (such as Kevlar) is treated with this liquid, the energy of an impact is distributed over a much larger surface area. Ballistic tests have demonstrated that the treatment can prevent bullets from penetrating the material.

Treated Kevlar is also effective at resisting sharp projectiles, such as knife stabs or shrapnel from roadside bombs. The material remains light and flexible allowing it to protect the whole body.

U.S. manufacturer Armor Holdings recently licensed the technology and plans to release its first products by the end of the year, however there are civilian applications as well – think about skateboard pads, motorcycle clothing and making tyres puncture-proof.

Thanks to Gareth for the link.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

More than a camera...

Came across an excellent Guardian article that looked at Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic savant. Here are some edited highlights:

"Hello, nice to meet you, how are you, I'm very well thank you." Stephen Wiltshire fires out the introductory niceties, barely pausing for breath and not waiting for a response. Wiltshire, who is autistic, has learned the form of a meeting but not the practice; he knows the script but forgets the pauses.

He became famous in 1987 when his extraordinarily detailed drawings were showcased on the TV programme QED, and Hugh Casson, then president of the Royal Academy, declared him "the best child artist in Britain". The press raved about an autistic "savant" who could reproduce cityscapes from memory. This small, lost-looking black boy was declared a genius.

He loves the US and, in particular, New York: the skyscrapers, the avenues and above all the cars. He adores American cars, especially those graceful monsters from the 50s and 60s. Wiltshire's world is highly objective - he loves New York for its buildings, not its spirit. He is captivated by shapes and structures. One of his former tutors, Michael Buhler, has said that the fact Wiltshire cannot interpret what he sees, that he simply makes a duplicate of it, will limit his artistic progress. The title of the exhibition, Not a Camera, aims to meet that critique head on.

"There's a misconception that autistic people haven't got a sense of imagination," says the show's curator, Mark De Novellis. "Stephen has developed verbally, emotionally, artistically. He has lodged in the public consciousness and people remember the documentary, but they still think of him as a young child and they don't realise what he's done since. He's a professional full-time artist now - that's how he earns his living."

De Novellis says that while autism is important to Wiltshire's art, he doesn't want to be seen just as an autistic artist. "In the past he has sometimes been treated as a performing chimp," says De Novellis. "People have sat him down to draw a building from memory, as if it was a party trick."

A bit of searching led me to his web site, where there are some stunning examples of his art.

If you've got five minutes to spare, download this fascinating video clip.

The site that hosts the video clip is a mine of information on savant syndrome.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Wikipedia modifies 'open editing' policy

cnetNews reports: (shortened version)

Wikipedia is the online encyclopedia that "anyone can edit." Unless you want to edit the entries on Albert Einstein, human rights in China or Christina Aguilera.

Wikipedia's come-one, come-all invitation to write and edit articles, and the surprisingly successful results, have captured the public imagination. But it is not the experiment in freewheeling collective creativity it might seem to be, because maintaining so much openness inevitably involves some tradeoffs.

At its core, Wikipedia is not just a reference work but also an online community that has built itself a bureaucracy of sorts - one that, in response to well-publicized problems with some entries, has recently grown more elaborate. It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism.

Those measures can put some entries outside of the "anyone can edit" realm. The list changes rapidly, but as of yesterday, the entries for Einstein and Ms. Aguilera were among 82 that administrators had "protected" from all editing, mostly because of repeated vandalism or disputes over what should be said. Another 179 entries - including those for George W. Bush, Islam and Adolf Hitler - were "semi-protected," open to editing only by people who had been registered at the site for at least four days.

While these measures may appear to undermine the site's democratic principles, Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder, notes that protection is usually temporary and affects a tiny fraction of the 1.2 million entries on the English-language site.

"Protection is a tool for quality control, but it hardly defines Wikipedia," Mr. Wales said. "What does define Wikipedia is the volunteer community and the open participation."

From the start, Mr. Wales gave the site a clear mission: to offer free knowledge to everybody on the planet. At the same time, he put in place a set of rules and policies that he continues to promote, like the need to present information with a neutral point of view.

The system seems to be working. Wikipedia is now the Web's third-most-popular news and information source, beating the sites of CNN and Yahoo News, according to Nielsen NetRatings.

The bulk of the writing and editing on Wikipedia is done by a geographically diffuse group of 1,000 or so regulars, many of whom are administrators on the site.

"A lot of people think of Wikipedia as being 10 million people, each adding one sentence," Mr. Wales said. "But really the vast majority of work is done by this small core community."

The administrators are all volunteers, most of them in their 20's. They are in constant communication - in real-time online chats, on "talk" pages connected to each entry and via Internet mailing lists. The volunteers share the job of watching for vandalism, or what Mr. Wales called "drive-by nonsense." Customized software - written by volunteers - also monitors changes to articles.

Mr. Wales calls vandalism to the encyclopedia "a minimal problem, a dull roar in the background." Yet early this year, amid heightened publicity about false information on the site, the community decided to introduce semi-protection of some articles. The four-day waiting period is meant to function something like the one imposed on gun buyers.

Once the assaults have died down, the semi-protected page is often reset to "anyone can edit" mode. An entry on Bill Gates was semi-protected for just a few days in January, but some entries, like the article on President Bush, stay that way indefinitely. Other semi-protected subjects as of yesterday were Opus Dei, Tony Blair and sex.

To some critics, protection policies make a mockery of the "anyone can edit" notion.

"As Wikipedia has tried to improve its quality, it's beginning to look more and more like an editorial structure," said Nicholas Carr, a technology writer who recently criticized Wikipedia on his blog. "To say that great work can be created by an army of amateurs with very little control is a distortion of what Wikipedia really is."

But Mr. Wales dismissed such criticism, saying there had always been protections and filters on the site.

Monday, June 19, 2006

RoboCup 2006

New Scientist reports (edited):

Robots ranging from humanoids, to dogs, to matchboxes on wheels battle it out for a world title in Robocup2006.

Although fun is a big motivation for the 2500 scientists from 36 nations taking part, there is a more serious point to robot football, explains Daniel Polani: "It's a bit like getting computers to play chess, but with more uncertainty. It sets a difficult problem that is helpful to advance the science of robotics."

Polani is the manager of the 'BoldHearts' team from the University of Hertfordshire, UK, playing for the 3D simulated football title. Each team is made up of 11 virtual players who play 10-minute games onscreen.

Each player acts autonomously so, unlike in a videogame, there is no central control. 32 teams are competing for the world title.

Four-legged league
Polani's tip for the best matches to watch at RoboCup is the four-legged league. Teams are made up of four of Sony's Aibo robotic dogs, now discontinued to the dismay of researchers. They play on a 6 x 4 metre pitch and use their colour vision to identify the ball, goals and other features.

"It's the most successful because the teams have made so many improvements. Back in 1998 they looked terrible but now the Aibos play very competitive games," says Polani.

There are also two leagues for humanoid bots, classed as either Kidsize, less than 60 centimetres tall, or TeenSize, which is upwards of 60 cm. This level of football is a bit like the Aibo league in 1998, says Polani. "They are at an earlier stage in development because they have a bigger challenge," he says, adding that one of the biggest hurdles is materials.

Finding a robot equivalent of the muscles and tendons that lets human players change direction quickly would be a large improvement over the motors used in most robots, which are best at steady movement in one direction.

Rescue robots
The final two of the big soccer titles up for grabs are the middle- and small-size leagues for wheeled robots in teams of four or five. The play in these competitions is more similar to the Aibo league because the basic technology is more simple.

There are also additional prizes to be won for less sporty challenges:

RoboCupRescue sets a task for robots designed to help in emergency situations; RoboCup@Home uses a living room and kitchen set to test domestic robots at chores like fetching and carrying and following a human, and; RoboCupJunior is for teams of young students who have worked on robots designed to perform rescues, play soccer, or dance in formation to music.


When the last of Sony's Aibo robotic dogs rolled off the production line in March 2006, it wasn't just consumer fans who mourned its passing. For years robotics researchers have been using Aibo to test artificial intelligence systems, and they were dismayed by its demise. Their online chatter has been littered with panicked requests for advice on getting hold of remaining stocks and concern over the future of their research projects.

Since its birth in 1999, Aibo has quietly become one of the most widely used robotics research tools. Its skills as a soccer player that could be programmed to compete in teams for the annual RoboCup Four-Legged Challenge are what first attracted many research labs. Soon it was being used much more widely, and it became the closest thing researchers had to a "standard" programmable robot.

Friday, June 16, 2006

From the 'How cool is that?' department

Fukuda's Automatic Door utilises motion-detecting slats that match the shape of the person or object passing through. This helps maintain a stable temperature in a room and minimises the amount of contaminants being transferred between working areas.

My guess is that the energy-saving objectives will be thwarted, at least in its early days, by people repeatedly walking through it, amazed at its 'cool' factor!

It’s still in prototype mode, but if you are fluent in Japanese there is a website you can visit.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

'Cars' takes $62.8 million in first weekend. Wall Street 'disappointed'.

From Ronald Grover (edited)

When is a blockbuster film a disappointment? Only on Wall Street, which seems to have moved this weekend's opening of the Walt Disney-Pixar film Cars off the side of the road into a ditch marked for losers. Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen, one of Wall Street's smartest, called Cars's $62.8 million weekend take a "disappointing performance." Bank of America analyst Douglas Shapiro points out it "has a couple of negative implications" for Disney shares, and says it "could struggle to gross $230 million domestically."

Excuse me. It will "struggle" to cross $230 million in the U.S.? If it, in fact, wobbles it's way to $230 million this year that would have ranked as last year's fourth-largest film, about 10% or so behind Warner Bros.' Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire. (I don't recall anyone calling that a disappointment, despite its $140 million budget, about double Car's budget, according to movie site As for Car's "disappointing" opening weekend, only three films this year - X Men: The Last Stand, The Da Vinci Code, and Ice Age: The Meltdown; have opened better. Simply put, how is this disappointing?

Of course, it is disappointing because Wall Street analysts had projected that Disney's $7.4 billion acquisition this year of Pixar would turn it once more into a world-beating animation superpower. Reif, for instance, had estimated that Cars would gross $270 million. BofA's Shapiro noted that Pixar's prior four releases (including such huge hits as Finding Nemo) had averaged $275 million—and the difference between a $275 million film and a $225 million film is 0.4 cents per share in Disney's earnings.

Let's look at what Disney gets for its $7.4 billion acquisition. For starters, it gets the animation brain power it so sorely lacked. We're talking here not only Pixar's top creative guru John Lasseter, perhaps the most creative mind in animation today, but Pixar superstars like The Incredibles director Brad Bird. He's hard at work now on an upcoming Pixar flick called Ratatouille, which is scheduled for release next summer.

Lasseter, meanwhile, was named Disney's top creative executive after the deal, giving him the ability to oversee Disney's theme park and other businesses. The added value there is incalculable.

On top of that Disney, which last year faced the prospect of Pixar walking away after their joint 13-year relationship, doesn't have to worry about Jobs, Lasseter and company making their films for one of Disney's competitors. Moreover, the two sides are no longer openly battling over whether to make sequels for some of Pixar's prior blockbusters. Disney Disney wanted to make them; Pixar resisted. Now, Disney has the use of Pixar's brain trust to make sequels to Pixar movies, movies that are sold only on DVDs and TV shows based on Pixar products.

In May, Iger told analysts that production was starting for Toy Story 3, which Eisner had pushed to make over Pixar CEO Steve Jobs' objections. Now the two sides are apparently happy as clams.

Anyone who knows Disney knows that the Pixar deal was about more than a single movie. Pixar was meant to restore the lost luster of Disney creativity, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the $62.8 million Cars opening was just a tad better than the $40 million opening weekend for Chicken Little, Disney's last big non-Pixar animated flick.

On top of that, Disney's machinery turns any strong piece of "content" into a veritable money stream, with games, records, TV shows, and theme park rides. So give Disney a break, and its Pixar deal a chance, investors. Short-sellers may be chortling now. But I'm betting that Disney gets the last laugh, and they won't be all coming from the next Pixar blockbuster.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Digital v Analogue #8: A browsing compromise

My major music source is my iPod, played through my car, home or studio music system. I purchase the majority of my music on CD, rip them into my PowerBook's iTunes collection, add album artwork and move them on to my 'preview' playlist. Songs I like stay, ones I don't get deleted. I also have a 90 song per month subscription to, and go through a similar process with the songs I download, re-ripping them to 128kbps AAC and adding cover artworks.

Storing CDs is a logistical problem. I have thousands of CDs, the majority of them are stored at my design studio, with another tranch in three main locations at my house. There is also a significant percentage 'on loan' to friends. Some of these return.

At some point I am going to rationalise this in to one big 'alphabetised by artist' collection in my house, at the moment, discovering where a specific CD is can be problematic... but at least I can 'see' the ones I do have. The songs I download are more of a problem. They sit in my iTunes collection, effectively invisible unless I remember what they are called (yeah, right!) or if they appear on one of my playlists. Worse still, if I delete a track, then later hear it somewhere else and decide that I actually DO like it, I have to pay to download it again.

So, I've come up with a solution. Before I even listen to them, the files I rip or download are copied to a folder on my hard drive, along with a JPEG of the cover artwork. When there are 12 'albums' in the folder, I make up a CD cover featuring all 12 album artworks with their titles and artists. I then burn the music files (along with the cover artworks and PDFs of the cover artwork) to a CD.

The CD serves two main purposes; as a visual reminder of the albums I have purchased and downloaded, and as a 'backup' so that I have copies of every song I have purchased.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Lord of War

Writer and Director Andrew Niccol's (The Terminal, S1m0ne, The Truman Show, Gattaca) Lord of War is about the international arms trade, and how a man (Nicholas Cage as Yuri, who is also the narrator) becomes fabulously wealthy through it, at the cost of his soul.

The opening sequence is a technological masterpiece, following the 'life' of a bullet through its manufacture to its final (grim) destination. Yuri matter-of-factly relates the fact that there is one firearm for every 12 people in the world, finishing with, "So the question is 'How do we arm the other eleven?'"

Yuri is from a hard-working Ukrainian family making an honest living in a run-down part of New York. As a young man he sees a Russian gangland execution, and has a 'moment of clarity' where he realises the way to escape the mundanity of hsi present existence, selling weapons.

After a shaky start, he discovers that he has a gift for his chosen profession, quick wits and the ability to talk his way out of difficult situations. His brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) is soon recruited as his accomplice, and the film begins to trace the subsequent 20 years of their lives - through the end of the Cold War to the advent of terrorist threats and dictatorships in third world countries.

Yuri is completely amoral. His only motive is profit, and the profits are clearly massive, because we quickly see him living in a penthouse Manhattan suite with a gorgeous wife (Bridget Moynahan) and a son.

Yuri does, of course, have a nemesis, Interpol Agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), but he continually escapes arrest through a mixture of luck, judgment and the fact that Valentine refuses to play by the same (lack of) rules that Yuri does!

Cage is excellent in this film, playing Yuri in such a way that we feel sympathy with him, while hating what he does. Leto is better at being cute (Sky and Cyan thought he was gorgeous) than he is at being convincing as Yuri's brother. Bridget Moynahan is quietly convincing as the trophy wife who lives in denial until the awful truth of her husband's profession is made clear.

Lord of War is a cleverly written portrayal of a world that few of us know much about. Not a 'feel-good' film, but definitely worth a watch, especially if you enjoy films that make you think.It is not difficult to see why Amnesty International chose to put a trailer for their 'Control Arms' campaign at the beginning.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Guns and weaponry for the life we live today

'Control Arms' is a campaign jointly run by Amnesty International, IANSA and Oxfam. They have produced an excellent leaflet that employs dark humour (and well-written text) to make their point.

For more information, and to sign their petition, visit


Saturday, June 10, 2006

Cool optical trick has a nice optical 'trick', which demonstrates the way our eyes work. For an explanation of how it was done (and another example), visit this site.

Pixar release new trailer

Not content with transmogrifying toys, insects, monsters, fish and cars into cute, anthropomorphic and loveable characters, it looks like Pixar's next release will be helping us all to lose our phobia of rats.

The first teaser/trailer for Ratatouille is now available. If your computer can handle it, download the high definition version, the quality of the rendering/animation is stunning.

Thanks to Conrad for the link.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Millipede rediscovered

New Scientist reports:

It is a semi-mythical beast, rumoured to lurk under boulders and roam around on hundreds of pairs of legs, but it hasn't been seen for decades. Now after 80 years the world's leggiest animal has been rediscovered in a ravine in California.

Illacme plenipes, last reported in 1928, is a millipede that almost lives up to its name. Females are only about 32 millimetres long and half a millimetre wide, yet have up to 750 legs. Males are smaller, and only boast between 300 and 400 legs, two of which are modified into sex organs.

The species seems to be restricted to a single ravine in San Benito county, part of the California Floristic Province, a biodiversity hotspot. It was rediscovered by Jason Bond and Paul Marek of East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, who say it is related to certain millipedes found in biodiversity hotspots in Asia, southern Africa and Australasia.

The distribution of this family of millipedes reinforces the importance of the hotspots as repositories of biodiversity - "although convincing landowners that a millipede is worthy of conservation could be a sticky problem," Bond says.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Digital Ethics #14: reports: The very name conjures up either great respect or distain. Copyright holders continue to pressure the Russian government to obliterate this music service; while consumers enjoy high quality music at a cut-rate price. has managed a extraordinary level of popularity because many feel it represents what an online music service should be. The music service contains no DRM (Digital Rights Management), allowing the consumer to copy and transfer the purchased track to whatever device he or she wishes while compensating artists.

In addition,'s selection of file formats rivals, if not exceeds, that of many P2P networks. Most tracks are available in a variety of formats, including MP3, OGG, FLAC, WMA, and AAC.

Above all, the price of has allowed this service to rival the popularity of iTunes, and exceed that of Napster in the United Kingdom. Unlike most authorized download services which charge a flat rate of 99 cents per file, charges by volume. Each megabyte costs 2 cents, therefore the greater the quality the greater the price. For example, a 320 kbps bitrate MP3 from may end up costing the customer a whopping 8 cents while a 128 kbps may be as little as 4 cents.

The entertainment industry however claims the service is flat out illegal. According to the IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry), fails to pay artist royalties - contrary to's assertions. In their press release titled "Setting the Record Straight", the IFPI claims,

" is not a legal service either in Russia or anywhere else. It is distributing music without any permission from the artists or copyright holders. Unlike all the legitimate sites, it does not pay artists or copyright holders so it is effectively stealing from those who create music. Like most things that appear to be too good to be true, is not what it seems."

Two separate Russian investigations into MediaServices (the company that owns are currently underway. One investigation is probing the former owner of MediaServices, while a new investigation examines the current owner. The previous investigation met with failure when the Russian government was unable to find any grounds for prosecution.

The Russian government has recently felt the pressure from Washington to act however, as the United States Trade Represetative's office has specifically cited as a "pirate website." It's speculated that Russia's admittance to the WTO (World Trade Organization) hinges on tough copyright enforcement against both physical and digital piracy; including has been quiet on the issue, refusing to answer media inquiries from virtually every source. This policy has changed, as has decided, from its point of view, to set the record straight. Of particular note is point number 5, which implies the music service might be negotiating a settlement and a change in price structure. statement

The US government officials and politicians have been demanding lately that the Russian authorities shut down, alleging the site is pirate. Otherwise, they threaten Russia with sanctions, including blocking its entry to WTO.

In this regard we would like to make a statement:

1. The site belongs to a Russian company and for 6 years it has operated within the country, in full compliance with all Russian laws. Throughout this period the various government offices have scrutinized site's legality and have not found any breach of the law. So far there has been no decision by any Russian court contesting the site's legality.

2. The Russian site is not operating or advertising its business on the territory of other countries.

3. The site does regularly transfer substantial amounts of royalties to the Russian organizations for collective management of rights such as ROMS and FAIR, which have granted the site licenses to legally deliver music through the Internet.

4. The site reserves the right to take all steps necessary to protect its business reputation. We call upon everyone to take a thorough and unbiased view of the site's legality.

5. On September 1, 2006 the changes to the Russian copyright legislation will come into force. Since January 2006 the site has been making direct agreements with rightholders and authors at the same time increasing the price of the music compositions and transferring the royalties directly to the artists and record companies. The aim of is to agree with all rightholders on the prices and royalties amounts by September 1, 2006.

6. We believe in the long term and civilized business based on respecting the law, considering the customers' demands as well as the interests of both national and international rightholders.

The Administration
June 6, 2006 Moscow

in response, the IFPI (International Federation of Phonogram and Videogram Producers)has released this statement: setting the record straight is not a legal service either in Russia or anywhere else. It is distributing music without any permission from the artists or copyright holders. Unlike all the legitimate sites, it does not pay artists or copyright holders so it is effectively stealing from those who create music. Like most things that appear to be too good to be true, is not what it seems.

The site claims to have a licence from ROMS, a Russian organisation that claims to be a collecting society. Yet ROMS has no rights from the record companies whatsoever to licence these pieces of music. ROMS and are well aware that record companies have not granted authorisation for this service.

Downloading from is illegal in most countries. Consumers should not be fooled by but download from one the great value licensed and legitimate sites instead. clearly violates rules enshrined in national copyright laws and international copyright treaties, notably those established in the EU Copyright Directive and World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) Treaties. Even if one took's license from ROMS as legitimate, which it is clearly not, it would still have no extra-territorial effect. As the site itself acknowledges 'you are not able to download audio and video from if is in conflict with the laws of your country of residence.' [sic];

Legal action is being taken against There are two separate criminal proceedings ongoing in Russia regarding Allofmp3 directly. The first case is against the former director of MediaServices (the company that owns and runs the Allofmp3 service). The public prosecutor in Moscow has taken on this case and it is now in the trial phase. The second case is against a current director of MediaServices. This case remains in the investigation phase and again will be closely followed by IFPI.

In May 2005 a German court granted a preliminary injunction against the site saying that it had no right to offer music in Germany without the proper rights holders' consent. In October 2005 the Italian authorities shut down a portal,, and began a criminal investigation into it.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Robots that can read your mind

Wired reports:

Honda has developed technology that uses brain signals to control a robot's moves, hoping to someday link a person's thoughts with machines in everyday life. In the future, the technology that Honda Motor researched with ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories may substitute for a keyboard or cell phone or help people with spinal injuries move their limbs, researchers said.

In a video demonstration in Tokyo, patterns of the changes in the brain taken by an MRI machine, like those used in hospitals, were relayed to a robotic hand. A person in the MRI machine made a fist, spread their fingers and then made a V sign. Several seconds later, the robotic hand made the same movements. Further research would be needed to decode more complex movements.

The machine for reading the brain patterns would also have to become smaller and lighter - like a cap that people can wear as they move about, said ATR researcher Yukiyasu Kamitani.

What Honda calls a "brain-machine interface" is an improvement over past ways, such as those that required the brain to be opened surgically to connect to wires. Other ways that didn't require such surgery still had to train people in ways to send brain signals or weren't very accurate in reading the signals, Kamitani said.

Honda officials said the latest research was important not only for developing intelligence for the company's walking, bubble-headed robot, Asimo, but also for future auto technology.

"There is a lot of potential for application to autos such as safety measures," said Tomohiko Kawanabe, president of Honda Research Institute Japan.

Asimo, about 50 inches tall, can talk, walk and dance. It's available only for rental but is important for Honda's image and has appeared at events and in TV ads. It will be at least 5-10 years before Asimo starts moving according to our mental orders, according to Honda.

Right now, Asimo's metallic hand can't even make a V sign.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Can't get to school? Send a robot instead...

Wired reports:

Lying in his hospital room, on a mattress designed to protect his fragile skin, 13-year-old Achim Nurse poked his bandaged fingers at an orange button on what looked like a souped-up video game console.

Half a second later, in a social studies class discussing the Erie Canal, a 5-foot-tall steel-blue robot raised its hand.

"You have a question, Achim?" said the teacher.

Achim is using a pair of robots - one, called Mr. Spike, at his bedside, and its mate, Mrs. Candy, in the classroom - to keep up with his schoolwork and his friends for the months he will be bedridden at Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, just north of New York City.

The robot in the classroom, which displays a live picture of Achim, provides what its inventors call "telepresence": It gives the boy an actual presence in the classroom, recognized by teachers and classmates. It can move from class to class on its four-wheel base and even stop at the lockers for a between-periods chat.

"The robot is literally embraced by students as if it is the medically fragile student," said Andrew Summa, national director of the robot project, which is in use at six other hospitals around the country. Achim's teacher, Bob Langerfield, said his other students had become used to the robot - and were treating it as if it were Achim - after just a few days.

The program, called PEBBLES (Providing Education By Bringing Learning Environments to Students), has great potential for expansion, supporters say. It could keep suspended students connected to their classrooms, for example, or even help young prisoners. Summa says it also has promise as a tool in treating autism because it gives the patient control of the social environment.

"I don't know where it's going to go next, but it does have considerable potential," Summa said.

The robots work in pairs. The one at Achim's bedside displayed a live picture of the social studies classroom. Achim could see Langerfield, his desk, the board, a map of the United States and the clock. He could hear Langerfield saying, "From 1830 to 1860 New York City grew at an astounding rate."

The second robot was in the back of the classroom, its "face" (and autofocus camera) aimed at the teacher. Its display showed Achim in his bed.

"If he's looking out the window, the teacher will know it," said Jim Desimone, who is the traumatic brain injury coordinator at Blythedale and the school's "robot guy."

Using the buttons and a joystick on the control box, Achim could zoom in to read what was on the board; swivel the robot's head to see and talk to a classmate; raise the robot's hand; adjust the volume; or log out, if a nurse came to take him away for tests or physical therapy.

At one point, when the teacher wanted Achim to see something printed on a piece of paper, he held it up to the classroom robot's "face."

The robots also have scanners and printers so the patient can receive whatever the teacher is handing out in class - a fact sheet, a homework assignment, a test.

Achim, whose severe rash arose from a case of bacterial meningitis, said that when he was offered the use of Mr. Spike, "I was out of my mind, saying, 'A robot?' When I first saw it, it looked difficult."

But he picked up all the moves in 30 minutes, he said, and now finds it "cool" rather than strange.

"It's like a video game but the only thing is you have to go to school," he said.

"When you're in the hospital you're isolated, you're stuck here," said Desimone. "You don't have friends, you don't have anything except maybe a phone call from home. You fall behind at school. With this you have social interaction, which is a part of school. Yeah, we could have a teacher come into his hospital room and teach him, but that's not the same."

Each of the robots has a disk-shaped head, with a 15-inch screen showing the remote feed and a smaller screen that shows what the other robot is displaying.

The rod connecting the head to the trunk looks enough like a neck that the one in the Blythedale classroom had an ID card looped around it. The "shoulders" can hold up a T-shirt. The trunk slopes outward toward the 3-foot-by-3-foot wheelbase so the robot can fit under tables and desks. The bright orange plastic hand emerges from the trunk with a low whirr.

The robots aren't protected in class or in the hospital, and there has been no abuse, Desimone said.

"The kids see it as another kid, so they wouldn't pound on it," he said.

Blythedale has its own school, but that's rare and irrelevant to the use of the robots, which use wired or wireless internet connections.

"You can have a child hospitalized in New York City and his classroom can be in New Zealand," Summa said. "We can connect any two points around the world."

The robot system was developed in Toronto by Telbotics with Ryerson University and the University of Toronto. It is managed in the United States by The Learning Collaborative, under a federal grant. The 40 robots now in use are on loan to the hospitals, although Summa said they are available for sale at about $70,000 a pair.

Summa said one student used a robot so fully that it joined the boy's classmates to sing a song at a school show. He said a child in the audience asked, "What's that thing up on stage?" to which a friend of the student replied, "That's no thing. That's Jimmy."

Monday, June 05, 2006

HIV infection rates stabilise

New Scientist reports:

The incidence of new HIV infections appears to have stabilised for the first time in the 25-year history of AIDS, although the global pandemic will still have a deep, long-term impact, a new UN report said on Tuesday.

The world is making progress against the disease, thanks to a massive increase in spending, better access to drugs and growing awareness. But huge problems remain, the UN agency coordinating the fight against HIV and AIDS has warned.

In its report, issued on the eve of a UN General Assembly session on the disease, UNAIDS underlined the dangers caused by prevention programmes which it said in many countries were still far off-target and inaccessible to millions of people.

"Overall, the HIV incidence rate – the proportion of people who have become infected with HIV – is believed to have peaked in the late 1990s and to have stabilised subsequently, notwithstanding increasing incidence in several countries," UNAIDS said in its report, Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic.

However, the agency warned that there was no room for complacency. "We know what needs to be done to stop AIDS. What we need now is the will to get it done," the report said.

Majority unaware
AIDS has killed more than 25 million people since it was first recognised in 1981, while the HIV virus which precedes the disease has infected 65 million people over the same period.

In 2005 AIDS claimed the lives of 2.8 million people and over 4.1 million were newly infected with HIV, according to the report. By contrast, in 2003, the UN estimated that 4.8 million were newly infected with HIV.

An estimated 38.6 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2005, the vast majority of whom were unaware that they were infected, it added. The UNAIDS report is based on detailed country-by-country estimates that the Geneva-based agency carries out once every two years.

It pointed to "important progress" over the past five years, in the wake of a landmark 2001 UN summit which laid down targets for halting – and starting to reverse – the AIDS epidemic by 2015.

Sub-Saharan Africa
However, there is still "extraordinary diversity" in the epidemic, with a mixture of success and failure, it said. Sub-Saharan Africa remains by far the worst-affected region, being home to two-thirds of all people living with HIV.

Two million people died of AIDS in the region in 2005 and there were 2.7 million new infections. While the epidemic in South Africa – one of the worst in the world – showed no evidence of a decline, other African countries nonetheless made major progress.

HIV prevalence fell in Kenya and Zimbabwe, as well as in urban areas of Burkina Faso. "In the rest of sub-Saharan African, the majority of epidemics appear to be levelling off", said UNAIDS.

Elsewhere, there were declines in Cambodia and Thailand, but prevalence rose in China, Indonesia and Vietnam. India overtook South Africa as the world's worst-affected country in terms of the absolute number of people with HIV, although not as a proportion of the population. Epidemics in the former Soviet Union also spiralled.

Access to drugs
Global resources for the fight against AIDS reached $8.3 billion in 2005 – well within the range fixed by the UN summit in 2001. But annual needs are set to reach $22 billion by 2008, UNAIDS said.

Access to antiretroviral drugs in developing nations has improved, it said. About 1.3 million people were receiving them in 2005 – up from 240,000 people in 2001. But that figure was still less than half the goal of three million set by the UN.

In a grimmer assessment, UNAIDS said that less than one in five people in the world who risked HIV infection had access to basic prevention such as condoms and other safe sex measures, or programmes specifically aimed at helping drug users or prostitutes.

In addition, only one in eight people worldwide who want to be tested for HIV are currently able to be so. Scaling up prevention and treatment could avert 29 million new infections by 2020, UNAIDS said.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

London to Lincoln, 4 - 6.30am

My 'Music' playlist produced a particularly rich mix this morning:

Help Me - Joni Mitchell
Babies - Pulp
Crazy Little Thing Called Love - Queen
Fountain of Sorrow (live) - Jackson Browne
His Majesty King Raam - Lemon Jelly
I Hear You Now - Jon & Vangelis
Closer To The Light - Bruce Cockburn
Red Firecracker - The Jayhawks
Ugly Truth Rock - Matthew Sweet
This Place is a Prison - The Postal Service
You Make it Easy - Air
Sea Of Love - Bobby Darin
Language Is A Virus - Laurie Anderson
Each time you break my heart - Nick Kamen
Back To Basics - Shapeshifters
Shoot'em Up Baby - Andy Kim
The Last Laugh - Mark Knopfler
Time To Go - Supergrass
Sweet Baby James - James Taylor
Try Again Today - Charlatans
Frankenstein - Edgar Winter Group
Runaround Sue - Dion
Letterbomb - Green Day
Don't Care - Klark Kent
The Minute You're Gone - Cliff Richard
Better Things To Do - Terri Clark
Nickel And Spoon - Alejandro Escovedo
Cqd - Stina Nordenstam
I'm Still Dreaming, Now I'm Yours - The Jayhawks
The Kids Aren't Alright - The Offspring
Boo Bop Bopbop Bop - Pete's Dragon
Noir C'est Noir - Johnny Hallyday
Kick Him When He's Down - The Offspring
Mary of the 4th Form - The Boomtown Rats
Watching Cars Go By - Felix Da Housecat
Mission Impossible II - Limp Bizkit

Friday, June 02, 2006

Free image resource

For quite a while now I have been using iStockPhoto and DreamsTime as sources of stock photography. The search engines are good, and the prices are so reasonable (as low as $1 a pop) that I purchase images for both personal and commercial projects.

A week or so ago, my brother Gareth introduced me to a new kid on the stock photography block. Stock.xchng boasts nearly a quarter of a million images, all linked to a decent search engine. And (for the majority of uses) most of the images are free, often only requesting that the images are credited (btw, thanks Jamie for the beautiful image illustrating this article).

The quality of the images is variable, but because you can download full-size, non-watermarked images, you can examine them in your favourite image-editor before you use them.

TIME WASTER ALERT: Browsing, downloading, viewing and editing images can be every bit as addictive as Google Video!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Blade Runner Redux

After years of speculation (and just over a month after I managed to track down an 'original' copy... aarghhh!!) Reuters have reported that Ridley Scott's sci-fi classic Blade Runner, one of the first movies to appear on DVD, is being restored and remastered for a brief reissue in September.

The DVD, featuring the 1992 director's cut, will be deleted after four months, and replaced by a 25th anniversary 'final cut', which Warner Home Video is billing as Scott's 'definitive new version' of the film.

After a limited theatrical release, it will be released in a multidisc special edition DVD that also will include the original theatrical cut, the expanded international theatrical cut and the 1992 director's cut.

The director's cut first came out on DVD before formatting standards had been established, said Doug Pratt, editor of the DVD-LaserDisc Newsletter. "Shortly afterwards, it went into moratorium. The early adopters who bought the title have long since wished to see it upgraded, while other fans, who came into DVDs later on, have been unable to find it at all. It is the only 'big' sci-fi spectacle currently unavailable on DVD," Pratt said.

The film opened in cinemas in summer 1982, and while it grossed only $26.2 million, it quickly became a cult classic. The film is based on the novel by late science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose prose also led to such films as Total Recall, Minority Report and Paycheck.