Thursday, February 23, 2006

Computers at the Oil for Food inquiry

This week I attended a hearing of the Oil for Food inquiry. This is looking into if payments by Australian companies to the Iraqi Regime breached any laws. The inquiry room is hitech, with several dozen LCD computer screens and projector displays for electronic evidence. Much of the evidence is "born digital", being copies of email messages. But the absence of most of the header fields on messages worries me. More at

Thursday, February 16, 2006

1996 Vanity Publisher of the Year

Recently the cost of providing my web site has been increasing. In the process of seeing where two gigabytes of data are going each month, I stumbled across a web page awarding me "1996 Vanity Publisher of the Year".

Whoever did this went to considerable trouble to poke fun at flaws in my web site.
Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can see what it looked like in December 1996 (minus some photos which were not archived).

It is flattering for someone to go to so much trouble. The criticisms mostly were, and still are, valid. But perhaps I get the last laugh as the web site is still going (spelling mistakes, markup errors and all), ten years later. Many prettier sites have come and gone in that time.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Indian Electric Car with Linux Tablet Computer

India's automotive and computer industries have achieved remarkable synergy in the Reva NXG. The dull looking Reva electric car has been transformed for a motor show by cutting off the roof and embedding an Indian Linux touch screen computer in the dashboard.

Up-market cars now have a large screen for navigation and entertainment in the center of the dashboard. Some also have a second screen replacing the speedometer in front of the driver. The NXG has just one large screen in the middle of the dashboard for both functions.

Building an electronic display for a car is a major engineering task. Reva have sidestepped the problem for the prototype by embedding an Indian made tablet computer in the dashboard. This Linux touch screen computer is then programmed to be the speedometer, GPS navigation system and MP3 player. In addition it has Internet access via GPRS (popular in India).

Friday, February 10, 2006

Australian electric vehicle development

On a recent visit to India I photographed a very small two door electric car made in Bangalore by Reva.

Shaun Williams with his home built electric car

What I forgot to mention was that there is already a home built Australian electric car by Shaun Williams. He who took the heroic step of retrofitting an electric motor to a Toyota Echo.

electric bicycle

The axial flux electric motors initially developed for Northern Territory University (NTU) Solar Car, are now available in an electric bicycle. These have the advantage of being flat and so can fit inside the vehicle's wheel and don't need a gearbox. They are sold as a kit already built into a bicycle wheel. I have suggested to Reva they licence the design for the car, which would eliminate the need for a Trans-axle (the bit between the wheels with some gears in it).

ps: You may think this has nothing to do with computers, but the modern electric motors depend on electronics to make them mechanically simpler and on computer control to make them efficient.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Opera Mini Web Browser for Mobile Phones

Opera have released Opera Mini, a free web browser for mobile phones. Opera will SMS you the 64 kbytes of Java code (for a fee), you can install it via a PC, or as I did, got it on your mobile phone's existing browser.

But if you phone already has a browser, why install Mini? It reduces the size of images, compresses data and reformats web pages to fit better the phone. Mobile phone bandwidth is limited and phone companies charge a lot for data (mine charges about $20 a megabyte). It is a waste to download a large image on a web page only to have it shrunk to fit on the tiny phone screen (mine is a large one, but still only 320 x 240 pixels). Opera acts as a smart cache shrinking the image before it is sent to your phone.

Pages are also rearranged to fit better: Mini arranges the columns of a web page one after another. the width of the phone screen. This works well for web pages designed for accessibility and ones designed with a phone option (as mine are). But it doesn't work as well with poorly designed pages.

Opera also chop the web page into small portions, sending only a portion to the phone. This saves on download time and cost.

The result works quite well. My home page comes up with the logo at the top, the main menu, text, and most impressively of all, the Google advertisements at the bottom. My Blogger web pages also work well.

Apart from the browser built into the phone, alternatives are Google's XHTML converter. Like Opera Mini, this converts web pages to a mobile friendly format (XHTML Basic) but it removes images completely and has much more limited formatting.

One catch with Opera Mini could be that it is so easy to use you could run up a big bill without care. While it reduces the cost of data traffic, there is still data going back and forward and the pages pop up so quickly it is tempting to go surfing around.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Lost in the Amazon Jungle

Just read James Marcus' book "Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut". This is a good read and worth it for anyone interested in working out what Amazon did right, what other Dot.Commers did wrong and those wondering what to do next online. He gives a warts-and-all look inside the organization. There is a little too much adulation of the Amazon founder and too much criticism of a fictionalized middle manager ("the bird"), but overall it is very revealing.

Despite being a sober and sensible computer professional, I was caught up in the Dot.Com boom of the late 1990s. I couldn't work out how these companies were going to make money or what was so new about some of the ideas. But the stock prices kept going up, so I bought some shares (against my broker's advice) and lost money. As Marcus details, it is now difficult to explain the exuberance of the time.

One problem I had with the book was that until a third of the way through I couldn't work out exactly what Marcus was hired to do at Amazon. Partly this was because in the Dot.Com era job titles were a bit vague. But also Marcus suffered from, and still seems to be suffering from, some of the delusions of the era. It seems that he was hired by Amazon to write and edit independent book reviews. He still seems to be under the delusion that he could be independent while being paid by a company selling books.

Amazon had the idea that they would create "content" (that is book reviews) as a way to make their web site more than just a mail order book shop. Towards the end of the book the very real human sadness by the editor employees is detailed, when Amazon worked out how to automate this process and made the staff reviewers redundant. In the end it turned out that the automated system was as good, or better, than the human editors, or simply that the editorial content made not difference to selling books.

Marcus details the battles between the reviewing staff and the marketing and sales people at Amazon. While he debunks many of the delusions surrounding the Dot.Com era he seems to have retained the delusion that Amazon was anything other than a company selling things and his job was to help sell things. Amazon sells books and so the job of those writing content at Amazon is to help sell books.

The other irony missed in this book is the old economy nature of Amazon's business. While using on-line technology, they were selling bits of coagulated crushed tree pulp (that is old fashioned printed paper books). Amazon did not invent a whole new business paradigm, they just slightly adapted the mail order business to electronic means. Electronic books were an early failure of the Dot.Com boom but lately may be making a comeback.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Future of home theatre is the Access Grid?

wall screens
Before you rip out some walls to install a home theatre, perhaps you should have a look at the Access Grid first.

The home entertainment industry sees the future as a huge, wide, high definition screen in everyone's home, preferably is a dedicated room which looks like a cinema with a projection system. Those without the space have to make do with a plasma screen.

But before you spend $50,000 or more on such a system, is it really the future? Springing up on university campuses and IT research organizations are access grid nodes. These are video conference rooms designed for high quality virtual meetings.

ceiling mounted projectors
Apart from video conference cameras, microphones and speakers, the rooms have multiple video screens. This is done to save the cost of buying a very large, high resolution wide screen. Instead you can get more for your money by buying three lower resolution, standard ration (3:4) screens and putting them next to each other. For a large room a row of three ceiling mounted projectors are used, with wall screens or simply a wall painted white (the photos show the setup of one of the rooms on the ANU campus). Such a room can accommodate several dozen to several hundred people. A smaller room for a dozen people can have three plasma screens and a very small system for a couple of people can have three cheap LCD panels on a desk.

Much of the time these rooms are not used for video conferences, but for ordinary slide show presentations and watching video. This room design might spill over to the domestic environment and become the normal video entertainment arrangement of the future.

This is not what TV and movie companies are planning for home entertainment. They want very high resolution wide screen displays, because that is what they have already invested in for content production and it is a way to force the consumer to buy new ever more expensive equipment. Three lower cost screens will not work as well with this content, but be better for Internet and web style multi-viewpoint material, such as Vogs. The TV company will let you see sports from different viewpoints, but only allow you to choose one viewpoint at a time. Three screens allows you to have three viewpoints at once.

The Access Grid was invented by scientists for scientific research purposes and can easily dismissed by the entertainment industry as too complex for the consumer. But the Web was also invented by scientists for research purposes and it became popular for home entertainment.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Submarine research for washing machines?

miniature robot submarine
I get invited to a lot of university seminars on esoteric scientific topics. One which caught my eye last week was on designing a propulsion system for a robot submarine.

The Australian National University is building miniature robot submarines, each about half a metre long. Most of the research concerns how to have the submarines navigate their way underwater.

Nanda Surendran was looking at how to control a new thruster design for the "SERAFINA" Underwater Autonomous Submersible. The propeller and electric motor for the thruster is made from one piece of molded plastic.

Fisher & Paykel washing machine Smart Drive motorsThe submarine motor design reminded me of those used in Fisher & Paykel washing machines. These "Smart Drive" motors are made of molded plastic integrated with the washing machine drum. They are very popular with experimenters who salvage them from old washing machines and use them for wind generators. The washing machine motor is under computer control, so it occurred to me that submarine research might be used to make a better washing machine, as well as a submarine.