Wednesday, June 22, 2005
There's a new robot hanging around the (Radio) Shack. It's called Vex and it's put out by Vex Robotics and sold at Radio Shack.
It's possible to download the manual for free at their site. It gives a fairly good idea of what's in the basic package.
The short review is that Vex is for someone with a strong interest in robotics, an engineering temparament, a good, clean, undisturbed working space, and a fair amount of time.
The box contains a whole lot of small plastic parts, grouped into small plastic packages. And no more documentation than you can get for free. Each package of parts is numbered, but the instructions for building things do not reference the numbers, making it necessary to study the manual carefully to know what part they are talking about.
The manual is not written for the clueless hobbyist. It contains some basic directions, but is not much of a cookbook, nor is it an inspirational guide to building robots. It tells you what to do and what the parts and subsystems are, and makes a few suggestions for working with them.
The robots that can be made with the basic system are simple. The biggest disappointment is that the programming module -- the one that lets you seriously interact with the system -- is an extra add-on, and not in the basic package at all. (In fact, it seems it is not available yet. For some strange reason, the Vex web site carries a discussion thread of people wondering about the programming module... but they do not clear up the confusion.)
(Note: If you're a purist about robotic language, you might argue that once it gets its programming module, it could become a cyborg and not be a robot at all anymore.)
The only way to control the robots' thought processes in the basic kit is to use jumpers.
There are some simple sensors in the basic robot package, and the motion of the robot can be controlled with a simple remote device.
There are hundreds of plastic pieces and once they come out of their little plastic bags they need to be managed, so it is quite important to have a good workspace and NOT have any little plastic-piece-eating children that can find the parts.
After it gets put together, the devices are square and the innards are exposed. This is not a cuddly Furby. It is a practical, straight-forward introduction-to-robotics robot.
STAR WARS III
As everybody reading this already knows, Star Wars III, the Revenge of the Sith is either the best Star Wars flick in many years or, according to some, the best Star Wars film ever. Also, I suspect, most of the people reading this have already seen the film and have their own opinions. Continuing with information everyone knows, the first film was #4, there were supposed to be 9 of them. But after 5 & 6, and 1 & 2 and now 3, Lucas bailed on the final trilogy.
I have just a few extra thoughts. Star Wars is a remarkable cultural event. It spans almost 30 earth years of our lives. It is a coherent story, six movies -- or 12 hours -- long. Each episode broke new ground in special effects. One must, when talking about culture, include important stories told in the form of movies, and this is rich, powerful story-telling and myth-building.
Although there is very little -- despite claims that III contains anti-Bush remarks -- contemporary politics in Star Wars, a story of such scope and power is likely to resonate with many issues and events as we become more and more technological. (It was a nice touch that Lucas declares this story happened "long, long ago" in a galaxy far, far away. It insulates the film from a 1984 like countdown to some specific future point.)
One of the most important elements that makes #3 fun, I think, is how beautifully it fills in the missing pieces in the whole story, like the last piece in a gigantic jig-saw puzzle.
What makes it such an interesting film is that, unlike most popular entertainments, it is a tragedy. Like a Greek epic, it describes the fall of a potentially great man. It contains the terrible irony that by trying to protect what he most loves, he destroys it.
Normally, a story like that would be box-office poison. The brilliance of the method by which this 6 piece epic was constructed, is that by making the most distrubing film appear in the middle of a larger story which ends well, Lucas is able to write a tragedy with a happy ending, without resorting to any deus ex machina.
I have just started a blovel on Microsoft's new Spaces blogging site.
A blovel is a novel written as a blog. Ideally, it would actually be vlictional. That is it would incorporate video and audio as well as text. With the improved video services for blogging -- ie vlogging -- described in another blog posting, below, it is likely that this will happen.
The first entry may be found at: http://spaces.msn.com/members/Look-Out-3M/
THE FUTURE STARTS HERE ACCORDING TO POPULAR SCIENCE
In the June, 2005 issue of Popular Science, there is an article on "5 Technologies That Will Transform Your World."
That, and "The Future Starts Here," are too much hype. "Technologies" is too grand a word, for one thing. They are really talking about specific products. Still there are some interesting ideas in the article.
The first is a personalized roller coaster ride. You can blow your own mind.
The second is a light receiving implant for the eye. It can restore sight to some blind people. Though not discussed in this article, there have been some fascinating studies recently of mind-machine interface devices.
The third is a holographic 3-D TV image. The key part of this invention is the use of microthin LCD panels which can be clear as well as colored.
The fourth is a "Smart Home." Actually, this product is a wall with some ability to change color, temperature and to provide light.
And the final item is a new improved space suit.
One very nice feature of this article is that it provides a time line for each of these products into the future. Too many articles about the future ignore the question of when in the future things are supposed to happen.
Vlogging or video blogging (ie including videos in your blog) has become a lot better, easier and cheaper.
First, there are sites that will host your video with no charge either for storage or for transmission. Second, your video can be included in your feed. And third, the video can be searched by Yahoo.
A site that will host your videos is OurMedia -- http://www.ourmedia.org.
For including multimedia in your feed, you can use Feedburner. There's some basic information at http://www.feedburner.com/fb/a/about. Be sure to use the "SmartCast" service (not the very basic service.) Their feed burner works for video. With audio content it can be used for podcasting.
Yahoo is in the first post-beta version of their video search. There is a blog entry from Yahoo that describes video searching at http://www.ysearchblog.com/archives/000106.html
AFI'S TOP FILM QUOTES
Lists of "bests" and "worsts" and "most powerful" and most this and most that ... are always fun.
So it's not surprising that I watched AFI's "100 YEARS... 100 MOVIE QUOTES" instead of Paris Hilton's mother's reality (?) show.
The most unusual feature of the show was that instead of calling these moments the best lines, they called them, "quotes". And the most disappointing aspect of the show was the old-fashioned choices that came out on top. "...don't give a damn," from Gone With The Wind topped the list, and the tired... "... ready for my closeup ..." from Sunset Boulevard was high on the list. Six lines from Casablanca were picked, including "Here's looking at you, kid." They did point out that the (possibly) most famous line from the same movie (which Woody Allen used as the title of one of his early plays), "Play it again, Sam," was never actually spoken in the film.
There's only one quote from this century, "My precious," from Lord Of The Rings, Two Towers. The oldest line is "Elementary, my dear Watson," from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in 1929.
But for all this carping, the show was still fun. I enjoyed hearing other actors try to reproduce some of the signature lines, rarely successfully. Many of these lines sound very different in context that they do when spoken alone as quotes. The original line readings, not surprisingly, are mostly realistic and dramatically appropriate, while out-of-context they have a completely different emphasis.
Lots of my favorite lines were there and I enjoyed seeing them again. Last year's AFI show, "100 Years... 100 Songs," rated high enough to be re-broadcast again in August. So, if you missed this show, watch for the possibility of another presentation.
CREDIT CARD SECURITY
Several widely publicized security breaches, loss of credit card numbers, disappearance of social security numbers and other assaults on the credit system suggest that it is time to drastically revise the methods by which transactions are handled.
Once upon a time it was hard to pay even by check. Merchants were so afraid of not getting their money, they required multiple ID's if they took anything but cash. Now, you swipe your card yourself, scribble something unintelligible with a stylus on an electric pad, and they don’t even pretend to check the validity of the transaction.
Merchants were afraid of not getting paid, and it was too hard for the consumer. The system was not liquid enough. Now the system is again too hard for the consumer, but for a different reason. It is too easy for the consumer's credit to be ripped off.
Relying on social security numbers and your mother's maiden name is not enough. A new system needs to be devised which provides a second, personal, secure validation to verify a transaction as valid. For example, a consumer could establish a secondary security code before shopping (by phone or computer perhaps) and the merchant would need to use that code before a transaction was validated. (The AMEX BLUE card was designed for an online system like this -- where the card number used in an online transaction is disguised and tied to the actual owner -- although the fully secure system is not set up by default when you get the card.)
Many people were concerned about the security of online transactions before e-commerce was developed, but the big problem online (at least so far) is not the safety of the individual transaction, it is the safety of the records.
It is important that the system remain easy to use, but it needs to protect the consumer more effectively.
I just got an e-mail promoting a conference WIRED is having this weekend. Interestingly, the e-mail neglected to mention in what city the conference will be held.
Checking the website, http://www.nextfest.net/, however, does reveal the festival will be at the Navy Pier in Chicago, June 24-26, with a musical event tonight.
It sounds interesting. Quoting from the e-mail, "Inspired by World's Fairs of the past, WIRED Magazine's NextFest presents the future in a three-day festival at Navy Pier. Experience robots, flying cars, private space planes, homes of the future, fuel-cell concept cars, invisibility coats, and much more from visionary inventors, companies, and R&D labs around the world."
It's not expensive. Kids under 12 are free, adult tickets are $15.00
INTERESTING CONFERENCES: FLASHFORWARD
FLASHFORWARD NY 2005 will be held in New York at the New Yorker Hotel from July 6 to 8.
This conference has a particular importance as it comes after the announced acquisition of Macromedia by Adobe.
Flash has an interesting architecture and structure, combined with a large installed base of players, that makes it a very appealing platform for interactive web applications. It is capable of playing videos with interactivity at every frame, and measuring its own transmission speed, making it possible to do very sophisticated, user-friendly, actor-centered applications.
Up to now, it has had very primitive 3-D capabilities. In a conversation I had several years ago with George Lucas (when he was introducing a 3-D game), he touted the importance of immersive, 3-D technology, over the embedding of videos in gameware. Personally, I believe it is the inclusion of both that is the real goal.
Flash, partly because of its light-weight player, has had success as a platform for interactive applications in mobile devices
It will be very interesting to see what people have to say at the Flashforward conference about these issues -- the merger, improved video performance, 3-D, and mobile tech, each of which seems to be at a critical point.
Monday, June 20, 2005
MARIA FULL OF GRACE
Maria Full of Grace is a fictional documentary: The director, Joshua Marston, was trying to make a film which described the real situation of an ordinary drug mule – the person who brings the drugs to the US. Sometimes fiction is the best way to tell the truth.
Unlike most films, which are constructed to hit plot points first, and be real second, this movie tries very hard to be real. Of course, it takes a lot of artifice to do that, as Joshua describes in his voice-over commentary on the DVD.
It is a terrific story, interesting and dramatic.
The acting, by Catalina Sandino Moreno is very fine. She has the very special ability to be sympathetic even though she is swallowing drug pellets while she is pregnant, running drugs, lying to customs agents, and neglecting to tell the woman who is sheltering her that the woman’s sister has just died from a drug overdose when a pellet broke in her stomach.
This is Joshua’s first feature film, but it has the mature hand of someone who has had other significant careers before this. It was built on tremendous research, and hard, hard work. It is entirely in Spanish – Columbian Spanish, in fact, and much of the movie was shot in Ecuador, doubling for Columbia, but with a mostly Columbian creative crew and Columbian actors all flown in.
It was a prize winner at Sundance and Berlin, and Catalina won the prize for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival.
It’s a movie that’s well worth seeing. And even more interesting, a movie that was worth making.
There have been two major acquisitions in the new media / web world recently.
First, Adobe is acquiring Macromedia to create the most important single collection of web and new media tools.
And, as of Monday, NEOPETS are being acquired by MTV.
This may be the first of a series of moves to position Viacom's web sites for greater traffic and a larger economic role. Up until now, Viacom's web sites have been supporting of Viacom's properties, but have not moved strongly to become major properties on their own. Neopets is a heavily visited, very sticky site.
Neopets are virtual pets. You must take care of them for them to survive. They are easy to create, but you have a virtual life in your hands once you create one.
Monday, June 06, 2005
TONY AWARDS NEED A REBOOT
Unfortunately, the format that is used for film awards just does not work at all for the Tonys. (For those who don't watch and don't care and don't know, the Tonys are the awards for Broadway theater. The show was broadcast live on CBS tonight.)
People simply do not know enough about the performers or the plays to be interested in the people who are getting the awards. (And most people will never, ever even have the opportunity to actually see any of the shows, ever.) The musical numbers from the shows do not work all that well on television. The voice from the sky announcing the presenters is boring. The show is generally too predictable and uninteresting.
Theater is great, and visceral, though it is more verbal than visual, and the musical numbers are heavily dependent on the context of the show. Moreover, Broadway shows are expensive, located in Manhattan, and can be shown to only one theatre full of people at a time. So the problem for the creator of the Tony show is to convey the excitement of theater in a different medium to an audience that does not know the performers or the content. (Gossip magazines may be gossip magazines, but they serve the purpose of making the performers in movies -- whom millions of people have seen -- even more human, accessible and interesting to the people watching the awards shows.)
The solution, it seems to me, is to create a real TV show about theater to celebrate the Tonys. It could combine backstage documentary material with interviews, and with adaptations (not excerpts) of scenes from shows. There are few enough shows in competition that you could make an interesting two hour show about all the nominees that would really engage a TV audience. Then, if the actual awards were presented in an efficient manner (without thank-yous that are meaningless to the audience) it could be a meaningful and engaging climax to the show.