Frightfully clever crossover technology marketing

The picture below submitted to reddit by /u/golmal7 shows a flexi-disc CD by Kid Koala entitled “15 Blues Bits.”

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The top side of the CD comes impressed like a vinyl record, and the disc comes with a cardboard gramophone that you can play.

Here’s a video of the record being played with the included kit:

And here’s what it sounds like on a regular turntable:

I have no idea whether the music on the CD is any good, but that’s innovative marketing.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

The driverless car: 60 years on, and still on the drawing board.

In a story published in 1953 entitled “Nobody Here But…”, the Good Doctor Asimov wrote,

“We were especially interested in the automobile angle. Suppose you had a little thinking machine on the dashboard, hooked to the engine and battery and equipped with photoelectric eyes. It could choose an ideal course, avoid cars, stop at red lights, pick the optimum speed for the terrain. Everybody could sit in the back seat and automobile accidents would vanish.”
They promised us flying cars, too,
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but this idea looks like it’s going to happen a lot sooner.
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The Google driverless car is a reality. Watch Steve Mahan, a blind individual, get taken to Taco Bell. These cars have now driven over 500,000 miles without a serious accident when the car itself was in control. While the technology is not yet perfect, it does not need to be; as long as the driverless car reduces accidents – in other words, if it’s better than human drivers – there is no reason why industry, including the insurance companies should not get on board. It will save lives, and reduce insurance costs dramatically.
That’s not to say that the technology is easy to develop:
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Google’s engineers are dealing with problems like this increased by an order of magnitude. But based on results, they are doing it.
Right now, the technology costs about $75,000 to $85,000 per vehicle, more than the car itself. But I fully expect that my grandchildren will be able to make full use of this technology, long before flying cars are ever – if ever – practical. And the Good Doctor Asimov would be proud.
The Old Wolf has spoken.

Big boys play with big toys

Saw these posted over at reddit the other day and since I live just down the road from where these big boys are used, I thought I’d share it. In fact, one of the men in my neighborhood drives one of these trucks. The comparison with the school bus next to it is pretty mind-bending.

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Here’s an image of the Kenecott open-pit copper mine where these devices are in use; the inset shows one of the loaders and its relative size to the pit.

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Next up is a time-lapse video showing the reconstruction of an access road that was wiped out during the massive slide of April 10, 2013 – in fact, four of these monster trucks were buried in the debris, but have since been recovered.

Of course, even these humonstrous machines are dwarfed by the Bagger 288, the largest movable machine ever created by man – built in 1978 in Germany by Krupp.

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This beast was designed for coal mining, and it chews up everything – including the occasional stray bulldozer.

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For more eye-popping images of this device, head over to Dark Roasted Blend.

Wind power? I’m a big fan. But not as big as this one.

Berlin’s Godzilla-size windmills, 1932

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“Berlin rests in the shadow of a monstrously tall steel tower with a hydra head of spinning fans, each about 500 feet in diameter. A medium-sized town’s population climbs over the 1,400-foot-high structure, noshing in a cavernous cafeteria and peering off a cloud-shrouded viewing deck. The city is aglow with great gouts of energy pouring out of the windmill – as much as 130,000,000 kilowatt hours a year – illuminating the anguished faces of once-profitable oil barons now crying into their beer.

This was the ambitious 1930s-era vision of Hermann Honnef, a German engineer with a lifelong obsession with high towers and wind power.”

Found this interesting bit over at The Atlantic – Cities – click through for the full article.

On the other end of the scale, scientists are working on windmills so tiny that 10 of them could fit on a grain of rice, with a view toward using such small devices to recharge cell phones and such.

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More on the idea can be read at The Verge.

While some ideas are phantasmagorical and others are yet futuristic, thinking out of the box and along these lines is both admirable and necessary. Anything we can do to get the oil industry crying into their beer steins is a good thing.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

The Berlin Clock of Lives, 1935

“A CLOCK of Lives operated by the Statistical Office in Berlin, Germany, informs spectators that the German population is constantly increasing. To insure being seen by many people, the clock was placed in Dönhoffplatz, a busy Berlin thoroughfare. The clock tolls the number of births and deaths occurring every quarter of an hour. The tone of the bells indicates whether a birth or a death has occurred.”

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Another view of the Clock of Lives:

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The clock, more properly called the Wilhelm-Lach Tower, was built in 1935. The small bell tower had the following inscription:

Every five minutes, nine children are born in the German Reich – every five minutes, seven men die. This tower is dedicated to the memory of the first National Socialist Mayor in the Central District, P[arty] M[ember] Wilh[elm] Lach, Born 9 June 1801- Died 6 July 1935″

According to the German Wikipedia site, the buildings around the square were heavily damaged during the war, and were largely razed and rebuilt. It is assumed that the clock tower met its demise around the same period.

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A photo of the clock memorial taken in 1935.

Berlin no longer has a population clock, but it has a pretty sick world time clock in Alexanderplatz:

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Der Alte Wolf hat gesprochen.

The universe may be watching, but we are listening.

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A friend of mine posted this picture of the Glowing Eye nebula (gacked from APOD) in the constellation of Aquila, taken by the Hubble telescope. It’s clear that the universe is watching.

However, we are peering just as deeply into the void, and now moreso than ever.

 

 

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According to the Miami Herald,  the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, better known as ALMA, is by far the largest radio telescope on earth. Interestingly, despite their size, the dishes are portable. Engineers transported them around the plateau on two giant flat-bed trucks. What the telescope picks up depends on where the antenna are positioned. Click to the Herald article for more details.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Planned Obsolescence

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It’s a conspiracy, right? We all know that cars, computers, printer cartridges, lightbulbs, and other consumables are now designed to fail sooner than they have to, in order to get us to buy more.

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Well, wait just a minute.

I ripped this comment by redditor Fenwick23 in its entirety, because it’s the best analysis of the “planned obsolescence” issue I’ve ever read. I’ve only bowdlerized it a little, and corrected a couple of spelling issues.

I grow weary of this repeated conspiratorial usage of the phrase “planned obsolescence”. They would have you believe that there are engineers out there designing products with the intent of causing them to break down sooner. Ridiculous. People just don’t understand how competition in manufacturing has shaped consumer product design. One of the oft-cited examples is the venerable Hewlett-Packard LaserJet printer. Back in the early 90’s if you bought a low-end HP laser printer, you got a printer built like a tank. The damn things were slow, but they never wore out. Contrast with the low-end now, which are flimsy, come with 3/4 empty toner cartridges, and certainly won’t be functional in 10 years. “Planned obsolescence”, the conspiracy theorists conclude smugly. But wait… how much did you pay for that LaserJet 4 in 1993? Yeah, it was over $2000… in 1993 dollars. How much did that lousy HP P1600 printer you’re complaining about cost? Yeah, it was $200. If you spend the equivalent of two grand in 1993 dollars, which is over $3000 today, you get something like the HP M575c , which prints, copies, and faxes in color, and it’s built like a tank.

What people don’t realize is that in the “good old days” of a given product, a cheap version simply did not exist, so all products of that kind of that vintage were well built. This happens in every industry, at various rates. Engineers are under constant pressure to reduce manufacturing costs to widen the consumer base. Those $200 printers sell at far more than 10x the rate of $2000 printers, because every college freshman is buying one. To that end, certain parts must by necessity be less durable. Ikea isn’t making bookshelves out of particle board to sell more bookshelves when they break, they’re using particle board because not enough people can afford $500 oak book shelves to keep all those Ikea stores in business. (emphasis mine)

“But Fenwick23”, you ask, “What about that inkjet printer that had an expiration date coded into the inkjet cartridges?” Well, that one’s sadly all too easy to explain. Engineers, under the aforementioned pressure to cut costs, came up with a way to make inkjet systems for much cheaper. The only trade-off was that they had limited useful life before the ink dried out and clogged the nozzles. No big deal, just add an expiration system to the all-in-one nozzle-head-ink-tank package that lets the customer know that they need to buy a new one. This design is so much cheaper than the old design, they won’t mind buying it more often. But as so often happens in big corporations run by non-engineers, between the engineering department and the store shelves some upper-middle-manager looked at these cheaper ink jet cartridges and said “WOW WE CAN MAKE MOR PROFITZ IF WE SELL THEM SAME PRICE AS THE OLD KIND!” As a result, the anticipated reasonable trade-off intended by the engineers disappeared in a puff of pointy-haired logic, and six months later HP is stuck with a PR nightmare that looked like planned/programmed obsolescence, but which was in reality the result of managerial idiocy.

There are, of course, some real examples of planned obsolescence. The canonical example, from which the phrase was popularized, was Brooks Stevens use of it to describe 1950’s automotive marketing strategy. Brooks wasn’t talking about the cars breaking down, though. He was talking about aggressively marketing styling changes. The idea was to make last years model seem obsolete by changing the body designs. In essence, Brooks’ notion of planned obsolescence was nothing more than adopting the same strategy as the high fashion clothing industry. Sure, your car and your jacket work fine, but don’t you know that this year the cool people have wider lapels and round taillights?

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The one place where planned obsolescence is a conspiracy to make you throw away perfectly serviceable items and buy new ones in order to prop up an industry is college textbooks. Renumbering pages and shifting end of chapter questions around is exactly the sort of sinister behavior people accuse HP of. The reasons educational publishers stoop to such tactics is quite clear, though. Their customer base is not expandable by making the product cheaper, so in order to maintain profits they have to make their otherwise durable product “expire” somehow. It’s evil, but understandable.

I applaud people repairing serviceable goods. Heck, I make a living repairing broken things. I just get sick of idiot “journalists” from places like Wired parroting the tired notion that the obsolescence of products in our cheap consumer society is the result of sinister motives, rather than the fact that we’re all bloody cheapskates.

Thank you, Fenwick23.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

The VFX dilemma: It’s not easy being green

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If it weren’t for VFX (visual effects) people, that’s just what Avatar and Lord of the Rings would look like.

There’s a lot of buzz on the internet right now about Bill Westenhofer’s suddenly-interrupted Oscar speech for “The Life of Pi.” Many people are interpreting this as a deliberate sabotage or a snub of VFX workers, but everything I have read seems to indicate that all participants were briefed early on about how much time they would have (one minute) and what would happen if they went overtime (the music from “Jaws”, followed by a cutaway.) It would seem that Mr. Westenhofer was simply not aware of how quickly one minute passes, and instead of jumping straight to his message, he exulted in the moment – which is what Oscar wins are for anyway.

I can’t speak to reality, because I just don’t have enough information. By Occam’s Razor it would indicate more happenstance than malice was at work here. But the more important point is that the event brought the entire issue of VFX studios into the public eye, and that’s a good thing.

Longtime critic and commentator Drew McWeeny published an open letter to Hollywood yesterday, and if you’re a consumer of films, either from Hollywood or independent producers, you would do a lot worse than to read this article – and the following commentary, which is just as enlightening.

The executive summary? Major studios are inserting hard objects into every possible orifice of VFX companies, who in turn are inserting hard objects into every possible orifice of those who work for them. And that’s the polite version. But read the letter, and the commentary, and then branch out and do your own research.

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None of this is new, of course. “The Wizard of Speed and Time,” while a delightful and entertaining film in its own right, is essentially a rant by Mike Jittlov about having hard objects inserted into every possible orifice by the movie studios of his own time… and things have only gotten worse. Now, instead of creative geniuses like Jittlov working on their own and being screwed, we have entire stables of very talented people being worked insane hours without compensation (either not being paid overtime, or not being paid at all beyond their base wages), having no benefits, being classified as independent contractors despite working full-time for their companies, having no representation, simply seeing their jobs eliminated as studios outsource their work to places like India, having their whereabouts monitored, and even being threatened with physical abuse if they don’t perform like gods. Two other good reads are at the VFX Soldier and io9.

Granted, this is the outrage du jour. Public fickleness being what it is, the tempest will calm and people will go back to their lives as soon as yesterday… but for those working in the industry, the intolerable conditions will continue. But it raises a question in my own mind: as a consumer, what’s my responsibility?

Many people are up in arms about genetically modified foods, and consumers right and left are declining to shop at places that sell GMO’s; many people refuse to buy coffee that isn’t Fair Trade; Apple felt the pressure of public outrage and stepped up their game with their Chinese suppliers; even humble quinoa has raised a few eyebrows after it was found that increasing Western demand has so raised prices that local producers can no longer afford their own product. People get mad about stuff, and they do things.

It’s long been known that (with a few notable exceptions in cases of truly ethical companies), the only way to influence an industry is to hit it where it really hurts – in the wallet. Hollywood studios are interested in only one thing – maximizing dollars for themselves, and minimizing dollars spent on other people. Those dollars, however, come from us. You and me. The lovers of Avatar, The Lord of the Rings, The Avengers, you name it. If it were not for these talented people (and the writers, of course, but that’s another essay), I would not have been able to laugh myself silly watching Hulk toss Loki around like a rag doll – best moment in the whole film, if you ask me – these films would be worth less than nothing without the VFX people behind the visual magic.

It’s a tough issue, because good movies are a large part of my entertainment, and a great way to escape the daily grind, or to forget about the douchebaggery and unfairness that pervades 21st-Century society. Giving up all movies until the VFX people have fair and effective representation would be one solution, but would have little effect unless enough people chose this route to cut revenues for Hollywood, and the chances of that are… well, “snowball in Hell” is what comes to mind.

At the very least, I can contribute to raising the awareness of people about the issue. This article is a tiny drop in the ocean, but it’s a lot of tiny drops coming together that create a flood. I can also be more judicious about what I watch and when, and continue to think about the issue from the consumer side. The people who are at the heart of more and more movies at least deserve that much consideration.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

The Useless Web: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

First, we’ll start off with the bad. That’s simply when you go to a page you thought would contain the content you were looking for, and all you get is this:

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Of course, many websites (such as Livejournal in this case) have very creative 404 pages, which tends to reduce the sting a little bit.

Then, there’s the Ugly. These are data aggregators which are designed by black-hat SEO types; their only purpose is to get you to click on links for which they will be paid. For example, this morning I was looking for a reference to the “smiler“, an alternative punctuation mark which I first heard about in the early 60’s, about the same time as I learned of the interrobang. The “smiler” looked like this: ‿ and was designed to function as an irony mark, this long before the invention of the emoticon. Unfortunately, the preponderance of the latter, combined with the ubiquitous “smiley face,” has all but buried any possible reference to the mark I was looking for, and indeed it might have had a different name.

At any rate, I Googled for “alternative punctuation,” and the first hit on the list was this:

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This, children, is called “spamdexing.” The Wikipedia article referenced above also calls it “search engine poisoning,” and that’s about as accurate as you could want. I left a comment on their website, to wit:

“Here is a perfect example of one of the worst evils of the Internet – aggregators that offer nothing but hqiz , and pollute valid search results. This page has virtually zero to do with alternate punctuation (for example, the interrobang) and instead plugs in an SEO search phrase plus reams of unrelated camel ejecta. Thank you very little.”

Unfortunately, the web is full of this sort of douchebaggery; even “more legitimate” information aggregators such as Ask, FixYa, or Yahoo Answers tend to be full of sound and fury but signify nothing. For a diligent web searcher, it means “looking for the ruby underneath the rot,”[1] shoveling through the horse manure to find the pony, processing 10 tons of ore for one ounce of platinum.

Lastly, there’s what I consider the Good. This kind of website can be found at The Useless Web, an aggregator of totally useless but often downright amusing or intriguing single-service web pages written by everyone under the sun. More fun to waste your time with than watching the bread rise. An example of one which made me laugh is here. You can thank me later.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


[1] Life Is, Kander and Ebb, from “Zorba.”

Make your passwords even stronger

Back in 1998, Scott Adams did a Dilbert strip that made many IT professionals cringe in sympathy.

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As painful as this may seem, it’s one of the few times that Adams had underestimated where technology was going.

Ars Technica recently published an article entitled “Why passwords have never been weaker—and crackers have never been stronger.” I recommend it to anyone who has data on the internet that they want to keep secure. I’ve posted about passwords before, but this article explains why the urgency to use passwords that are uncrackable is even greater. It’s a technical read, but even if you don’t read it, you should be updating all your passwords.

“Newer hardware and modern techniques have also helped to contribute to the rise in password cracking. Now used increasingly for computing, graphics processors allow password-cracking programs to work thousands of times faster than they did just a decade ago on similarly priced PCs that used traditional CPUs alone. A PC running a single AMD Radeon HD7970 GPU, for instance, can try on average an astounding 8.2 billion password combinations each second, depending on the algorithm used to scramble them. Only a decade ago, such speeds were possible only when using pricey supercomputers.”

Recommendations:

  • Use a different password for each account. If one is compromised, the others remain secure.
  • Use combinations of multiple words (Seven Whipped Aardvark Quonset) which would take 27 undecillion years for a desktop PC to crack.
  • “It’s also important that a password not already be a part of the corpus of the hundreds of millions of codes already compiled in crackers’ word lists, that it be randomly generated by a computer, and that it have a minimum of nine characters to make brute-force cracks infeasible. Since it’s not uncommon for people to have dozens of accounts these days, the easiest way to put this advice into practice is to use program such as 1Password or PasswordSafe. Both apps allow users to create long, randomly generated passwords and to store them securely in a cryptographically protected file that’s unlocked with a single master password. Using a password manager to change passcodes regularly is also essential.”

The Old Wolf has spoken.