Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The children know

A quote that inspired me.

"The children know. They have always known. But we choose to think otherwise; it hurts to know the children know. The children see. Thus we conspire to keep them from knowing and seeing. And if we insist, then the children, to please us, will make believe they do not know, they do not see. Children make that sacrifice for our sake - to keep us pacified. They are remarkably patient, loving and all-forgiving. It is a sad comedy: the children knowing and pretending they don't know to protect us from knowing they know."

( Maurice Sendak )

Friday, October 6, 2006

Conception of a Bird

This is my first Driftwood sculpture. I called it "Conception of a Bird". It represents a frozen beginning stage of the forming of an image or idea of a bird in the human mind.

Title: Conception of a Bird.
Wood: Unknown Driftwood. Possibly some kind of root.
Base: Peruvian Black Walnut. Turned.
Finish: Natural Danish Oil & Beeswax.
Time from start to finish: About 15 hours in the span of several weeks.





Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Driftwood and the LuRon method.

Driftwood is wood that has been washed onto a shore or beach, of a sea or river, by the action of winds, tides or waves. It often appears white, weathered and rotting. For some people it is simply junk, and often a nuisance. For others it contains a piece of art. As anything else in life, it all depends on what you can see in it. Sculptors see beautiful shapes in stone or other materials; similarly a driftwood artist sees the beauty in the forms of naturally shaped and weathered wood.

Hard to believe for most, but inside most pieces of driftwood lays a beautiful piece of wood with fantastic grain and colors. Lucile Worlund discovered this fact about 40 years ago and created an art form. She was so fascinated by the interesting shapes of driftwood and its inner beauty, that she defined a process to transform it into sculpture, and trademarked unde the name of "LuRon method".

Her method is aimed to remove the weathered part of the wood, scrape and cut off all the dead cells and rotting material, polish it, burnish it with deer antlers and finish it with beeswax or penetrating oils and mount it for display. The result is a clean piece of solid wood which beautiful and complex shape is often the result of the natural sculpting process enhanced by the artists, and which grain, patterns and colors are simply magnificent. The job of the driftwood artist is to find a piece with potential, discover the inner beauty and enhance it to transmit an emotion or a concept. Some examples of LuRon-method sculptures can be seen here.

The method is extremely natural, and it can be carried using simple tools, although you can get very sophisticated. The process is almost a form of meditation that brings you closer to nature and leads you to a journey into the inner beauty of raw natural materials. It’s almost a demonstration of how anything can become a wonderful piece of art, if polished by the hands of a skilled artist.

Driftwood assumes amazing and complex shapes. I have a theory why that is so common. You have to know that most wood has internal tension, and that tension sometimes is very strong; in fact it’s not uncommon that, when you cut a thick piece of wood, the wood snaps or binds the cutting blade as the result of release of that tension. As a piece of driftwood rots from the water or weather exposed layers, it stays solid in the inside. The tension of the inside solid material, overpowers the strength of the rotting material, and starts contorting the whole piece into very interesting shapes.

The LuRon method is native of the Pacific Northwest. The official website for the Northwest Driftwood Artists association, founded by Lucile Worlund, is http://www.geocities.com/northwestdriftwood/. You won’t find much information on this method on the net or in books. The only book that I know talks about LuRon is Driftwood Sculpture: From Finding to Fine Finishing (Paperback), and it’s not easy to obtain. I ordered a copy from amazon 2 months ago, and still waiting for it.

I am currently taking a class on the LuRon method. If you want to know more about it, feel free to ask. I may publish more details.

Monday, October 2, 2006

How long is the present moment?

The only moment that you can truly experience is the present, or NOW. You can't live in the past, you can only remember it, and you can do it only NOW. You can't live in the future, you can only plan for it, and you can do so only NOW. The present, or NOW, is the amount of time that can use information accumulated in the past or plan for the future.

Practically, the only time in which you can truly actively do something is NOW. Philosophically, it is often said that it is truly important to enjoy NOW, and make the most out of it, experience the present, grasp the moment. The poet and philosopher Horace expressed this concept in a Latin poem with the phrase “Carpe Diem”, or seize the day.

This is all good, and I do agree with that statement; entire books have been dedicated to this subject. A popular one is “The power of now”.

One question that I have been dwelling with is: “how long is the perceivable NOW”? If you think of time in mathematical terms, NOW is an infinitesimal length of time. It is similar to a mathematical point, which is more of a concept than a physical and humanly perceivable reality. A mathematical point doesn’t have a physical size and doesn’t have a physical shape. It’s simply a concept, with no physical counterpart. It is a simplification. An ideal.

Think about a visible line. A physically visible line is composed by an infinite number of theoretical mathematical points. Similarly you can think of a perceivable length of time as composed by an infinite number of theoretical and infinitesimal points in time, or NOW moments.

I wondered how long is a "more useful NOW”, that is, I wonder how long is the smallest stretch of time that one can truly dwell in.

Going back to the analogy with a line, my question is similar to asking: how long is the shortest visible line? How big is the smallest visible detail of a picture? How far apart must two visible lines be to be perceives as two separate lines? What is the smallest pixel of a hypothetical display, to be able to represent the smallest perceivable detail of an image?

Concentrating on the question about the pixel, I am assuming that there is a certain critical size of pixel. If you made pixels any smaller than that critical size, the human eye wouldn’t be able to perceive any additional detail. This would make any pixel size smaller than the critical size simply not useful for better representation of an image as perceivable by the human eye. That critical size exists, and has been measured, and it depends on the distance from the eye to the observed image. That critical size is accurately (and absolutely) expressed as an angle; for purpose of discussion, and to give you a simpler example to grasp, if you are looking at a monitor from 20 inches distance, the critical size of a pixel is 1/530” (Source: http://www.clarkvision.com/imagedetail/eye-resolution.html).

Going back to the concept of time, here is some interesting research information about human perception of time:

How long does the ‘present moment’ last? In the case of humans, it has been found that sound pulses separated by more than 3 seconds can no longer be grouped into pairs because they fall outside the span of attention. This represents the maximum interval of time that is simultaneously present for subjective evaluation – a kind of attention span bridging past and future events.
How finely can we divide our little 3-second lives? The shortest perceivable time division – sensory psychologists call it the fusion threshold – is between 2 and 30 milliseconds (ms) depending on sensory modality. Two sounds seem to fuse into one acoustic sensation if they are separated by less than 2 to 5 milliseconds. Two successive touches merge if they occur within about 10 milliseconds of one another, while flashes of light blur together if they are separated by less than about 20 to 30 milliseconds. [Source: Nick Herbert, Elemental Mind, Dutton, 1993].
The conclusion is that the critical length of perceivable time is represented by the fusion threshold, that is between 2 and 30 ms. The span of time that you truly live in the present moment is about 3 seconds, and is somewhat of the bridge between present and future. More phylosophically one could say that we slide through life on a 3 seconds surfboard, which carry us across all moments of our lifetime. Your existence is all concentrated in these 3 seconds; anything else is either a memory or a plan.

Something to think about…

Monday, September 25, 2006

Assumptions are hiding places for the truth.

This morning I walked in a conference room a bit early; while I was waiting for my collegue to join, I picked up a book that was sitting on the small coffee table at the center of the room. That book has been there for many months. It showed up in the conference room in the same period when the company was organizing Japanese classes for the employees. The title contains the word "Japanese", it has has colors similar to a book called "Japanese for Busy People" that I saw circulating around during the Japanese classes period.

I spent many hours in that conference room, stared at that book many times, and every single time I thought "I wonder who lost this Japanese language book". Many times I meant to look at it, but never did.

When I picked it up today I didn't realize that it was NOT a language book, at all! I even looked at a bunch of pages before truly stop and read the cover page, where the title proudly announced that my big assumption was wrong. The title on the cover is "The Big Bento box of Useless Japanese Inventions". The book is sort of a collection of strange and useless Japanese inventions.

Here is what happend: I saw "Japanese" on the cover, it showed up in a period where Japanese language classes where in mind, it has similar colors to a Japanese language text book... and all this information created the notion in my mind that it was Japanese language text book. I assumed it. For months! I started at the cover, without *really* seeing what it said. I was looking at the facts, without truly seeing the *facts*.

This was a small demonstration, for me, of how the reality that we live in is what we decide to see, and not what it is. It is a small demonstration on how the truth sometimes can be right there screaming at us, and we simply don't see it.

Our marvelous brain associates images and concepts with our knowledge, and makes up the rest of the reality working with associations and pattern matching. It makes up all that reality that we don’t stop and truly observe. This allows us to move faster, and it works most of the time. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and it pushes us into making unverified assumptions. In my engineering work I found that 99% of the errors I make are lurking into these unverified assumptions.

So, here is a piece of advice. Whenever you are hitting a wall and you can’t find where “the problem is”, look at all the assumptions you made and verify that they are correct. Remember to *TRULY* look at the assumptions. Don’t just skip over them. Anytime you skip over an assumption you could be skipping over the issue that is creating the problem that you are trying to solve. The truth is usually hiding in one of the assumptions you made.

I told this story to a colleague, and he mentioned a joke that has a lot of truth in it; I find it useful to help reminding me to never assume: "ASSUME makes an ASS of U and ME".

Friday, September 8, 2006

Thinking mathematics, acting art.

It was 1983 when the movie WarGames came out. It was that movie, believe it or not, that fascinated me to the point of changing and shaping my life forever. If you watch the movie today you’d find it cheesy and almost embarrassing, but at the time, when I was 11, it completely captivated me.

Around that time my aunt was buying an encyclopedia. As gift from the publisher she received a small home computer, which was quiet fashionable in the mid ‘80s. It was an Acquarious, one of these many unknown failed attempts that never made it big. A home-computer with rubber keys, an overheating problem and a cassette player as a storage device; one of these unfortunate competitors of the Commodore C64, that at the time dominated the low-budget computer market.

Since my aunt was (and still is) completely unable to deal with technology, she gave it to me. I was 12, and that cheap cheesy machine started it all. I skipped the stupid little games that came with it, and started learning the simple Basic Language of the built-in interpreter. Almost immediately I decided that Basic was not enough for anything serious, and I started studying and coding with Assembly. On home computers in that era you would typically code in assembly with a bunch of "poke", "peek" and "data" Basic instructions that would load the machine codes directly into memory for execution. Scary, but it worked.

Not long after that I purchased a used Commodore Plus4, which was a heck of a lot more powerful and fun to use. It came with a word processor and a spreadsheet built in, and an excellent Basic interpreter. Painfully saving money week by week, I bought a 5" disk drive, and kept coding away in Basic and Assembly. Eventually I moved to an Amiga 1000 (which I hated), and not long after to a IBM 8088. From there I kept upgrading with the various INTEL chip generations (V20, 8086, 286, 386, 486, Pentium, etc...). I worked on a first software development project for a customer when I was 14, in order to raise some cash to buy new and better technology (and go to movies and have fun), and never stopped since.

Well, to make a long story short I have been writing software everyday for well over 20 years now, and I grew up coding.

Probably due to this growth so close to technology, I felt at times that I lived in a world that was border-line with mathematics and perfect sciences. I often wrongly assumed that there was always a best way to solve any solvable problem and that it was always possible to identify not solvable problems and work around them with approximations. This sometimes led me to assume that we live in a time where science can find answers to most problems.

Well, I am changing.

I experience everyday that trying to find the perfect answer or ideal solution is impractical and unnecessary. The more I mature in age and experience, the more I realize that practical and achievable solutions are often found thanks to the experience and intuition of the engineers, and not thanks to some well known procedure that can be efficiently thought to others. For this reason, in general, the more experienced an engineer is, the better the solutions are and the quicker they come to be.

This makes software engineering more a form of art than a perfect science. Even if the basis of engineering is in well defined theory and theorems that have been proven mathematically, the success of the application of such theory and theorems in the real world is completely reliant on the skills of the people that do the work. No book can teach you how to apply theorems and theory, no book can truly and practically teach you when to pick an algorithm instead of another. Books and theories can give you an idea, but the efficient and practical application is really a form of art and a product of intuition. Almost a trade.

In this context, I define "art" as the application of procedures and theories based on experience and the artist unique perception of the world, to solve practical problems in a universe governed by laws that we don’t completely understand.

I am always amazed when I realize how much art is involved in any engineering filed, and how much engineering and science is necessary in any art field. For example a painter or a sculptor that wants to excel in the painting or sculpting of the human body, needs to study human anatomy in details and became an expert in the functioning and interactions of the body muscles and bones. Only doing so gives the artist enough knowledge to be able to visually recreate something that is close enough to reality to be considered pleasant and just right to human perception. Leonardo da Vinci knew this. Given that not much material was available he did first-hand research on human anatomy, risking his life and reputation in the process.

On the other hand, the practical application of medicine and surgery is so much based on art, steady hands, intuition and experience that is barely a science. Yes, true, surgeons need to be trained and know the theory very well, but the actual application of the theory and the process of performing a surgery is really a form of art that is susceptible to human error and miss-interpretation of cause and effects. Much like sculpting and painting! Also, a good doctor or a good surgeon is usually able to create a trust and a connection with the patient, which improves the success rate of medical treatments and surgery. This makes doctors very close to artists, in the sense that they are able to direct human perception in a particular direction, beneficial to the achievement of the end-goal.

I am always amazed that engineering and trades, science and art, mathematics and intuition, are so close in nature, if not one and the same, with a different accent and presumptions.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Sharp woodworking tools.

If you are into Woodworking, wood turning or woodcarving, having sharp tools is a must. The tools that you buy are almost always useless out of the store; you need to remove the factory's grind marks on back and bevel, and polish the back and the bevel appropriately.

Wood chisels that you buy at the Home Depot or Lowes are low-quality, and some hard work is required to make them somewhat useful. Even the most expensive carving chisels bought in the best stores require at least some leather stropping with polishing compound to be truly sharp.

The edge of woodworking cutting tools (especially carving) requires stropping often during the work, and sharpening periodically when needed; knowing how to sharpen a blade is not an option for anybody that wants to use a blade for woodworking. If you don't do it, you will always think that using a chisel is too hard for you and you will give up. A sharp blade cuts cleanly and well and it is a pleasure to use. A dull blade is useless.

I have been interested in sharpening techniques for years now, and I experimented and practiced with water & oil stones, sandpaper, high speed grinders, low-speed grinders, flat grinders and curved grinders. It takes time to learn what a sharp blade is, and even longer to finally be able to create one.

Like all fields of engineering, it's both an art and a science, even with expensive equipment the difference between a sharp blade and an "almost" sharp one is in the artistry and experience of the sharpener. That said, with a bit of practice, anybody can do it.

What "sharp blade" means, depends on the application. If you are splitting logs, you don't need a very sharp blade; actually Wood Splitter's Mauls are not sharp at all. They only need to get between the fibers of the wood and push it out, splitting, and not cutting. A sharp blade tends to "catch" the grain, not splitting the log. A maul breaks the log along the grain of the wood.

On the other side of the spectrum, when you carve wood with chisels, you need a razor sharp blade. When I say "razor sharp" I am not making an hyperbole! I actually mean it. You should be able to shave with a carving chisel, if you wanted to. I test my carving chisels on the hair on the back of my hand. I consider a carving chisel sharp when I can cleanly shave hair off it with the blade (don't try this at home).

Turning chisels are a different beast. They need to be sharp, but they also need to be very strong given that they see a lot of wood very quickly. For this reason, turning tools are not something that you would define "razor sharp". The bevel is too steep to cut hair, but is still sharp because it needs to cut cleanly and quickly.

If you are interested in an in-depth description of various tools, what sharp means for each tool and how to sharpen them by hand, I strongly suggest a book titled The Complete Guide to Sharpening, written by Leonard Lee. The book is a bible, and if you are interested in sharp tools, it's a must have.

Unfortunately sharpening by hand is a very time consuming process, and when the time to be in the shop is little, you don't want to spend most of it making your tools sharp and no have any time to actually use them (I've done it). For this reason my personal quest has been to obtain highly sharp tools as quickly as possible.

The first attempt was with high-speed grinder, such as the cheap models that you buy at the Home Depot. If you buy one, throw away the gray wheel that comes with it. It's worthless. Buy a white or pink one. Even having done that, I realized soon that these were not very useful except, perhaps, to sharpen lown-mower blades or quickly touch up turning tools.

The second step was to try with the water stone approach. Years ago I purchased a few Japanese water stones and honing guides. The results were awesome. With practice I was able bring cabinet chisels to a near-mirror polish with razor-sharp edges. The problem here is that it would take hours of hard and tedious work to go from a store bought chisel to a precision cutting instrument. Who has time for that? Not me.

My third step was to buy a Tormek slow-speed grinder. Awesome machine, at the time it was the top of the line. You can buy all sort of additional attachments and jigs to sharpen all sort of tools, from pocket knifes to swords, from carving chisels, to cabinet scrapers. This machine is great to reform a bevel of any shape, change the angle of any bevel, and bring tools to a decent sharpness and to do most of the time consuming steel removal. The stone works quickly and the jigs are fantastic.

With Turning tools and most shop tools that’s all you'll ever need, and probably more.The issue with this system is that it doesn't work very well for carving tools. I mean, it sharpens them, but if you want a great edge you need to finish the tools off on a water stone: the grinding wheel is too rough, even if you use the optional grader to make it finer. The other problem is that the leather honing wheel round edges too easily. The final problem is that, like every wheel grinder, it leaves you with a hollow bevel. This is good for turning chisels, but is bad for carving chisels. Anyhow, this machine is a good thing to have in a wood shop.

Recently I also noticed that Jet came up with a very similar machine. They took the Tormek and copied it, adding a couple of interesting features. I haven't tried one, but you may want to check it out. Frankly I am kind of upset that Jet can so bluntly copy Tormek products to that extent, and get away with it.

Anyway, since I am interested in woodcarving, and since I have a collection of very expensive Pfeil Swiss-Made gauges that I don't want to ruin on a grinding wheel, I decided to invest in a Lap-Sharp 200 sharpening system.

This is the Rolls Royce of sharpeners. It is sold only in a few stores, and it is expensive, but the results are amazing. At my first attempt with this machine, I was able to bring a carving spoon gouge, previously re-shaped on the Tormek to a 25 degree bevel, from a bevel with grind marks, to a polished near-mirror surface and a razor-sharp cutting edge. The difference between "before" and "after" using the LapSharp was amazing. The Lap Sharp created the sharpness required for a very clean cut.

The Lap-Sharp uses hig quality abrasive disks available in grits from 120 micron for fast metal removal, to 1 micron for final polishing and honing. Stropping while carving is not even necessary anymore. I keep a 1 micron abrasive disk mounted on the Lap Sharp, and when I need to strop I just take the gouge for a quick touch up on it. That's all I need. Quick, fast and easy.

Despite the fact that the system has a jig for gauges, I was able to do my carving gouges sharpening by hand, with amazing results. The carving/tourning jig is still good to have because it comes with a handy mount that can be used to hold an accurat angle.

In conclusion, if you are serious about sharpening, and if you are into woodworking, turning and carving, the ideal setup is to have a both a Tormek and a Lap-Sharp, one next to the other.

You use the Tormek for the tool's initial heavy metal removal and bevel forming (if necessary), and the Lap-Sharp to bring the hollow bevels to a flat surface, and to bring any bevel to a mirror finish and perfectly honed quality.

If you can't have both, and you need to pick, buy a Lap Sharp. You will love it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A tribute to Ian Norbury

As I wrote in my profile, I love to build things. One of my passions is for sculpture, in particular wood sculpture, or carving in the round. I have alot to learn in that area, and with a demanding job and a family I do not enough time to really dedicate myself to sculpture as much as I'd like.

Regardless, I keep collecting carving tools and I try to carve out some time for my passions (pun intended). From time to time I work on a new piece with a hope that some day I will be able to dedicate more and more time to this art that so much reminds me of my origins.

Anyway, this post is not about me; it is a small tribute to the best wood carver that I know about. His name is Ian Norbury. Visit his website and enjoy. If you are like me, your jaw will drop and you will wonder how a human can possibly make wood look like he does. I think the answer is: hard work and passion. Please, judge for yourself.

Note his Harlequines. Note the different colors. You think they are painted? No, they are individually inlayed wood diamonds! Can you imagine the amount of work required to do that?
Note the smooth surfaces and the proportions of his sculptures, the dynamic of the poses, the perfect marriage between realism and beauty that he is able to extract from raw pieces of wood.

If you want to give somebody a good gift, buy Ian Norbury's book "The Art of Ian Norbury: Sculptures in Wood" (ISBN 1565232224). A wonderful showcase of his art that anybody would love to have on their coffee table.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Traffic & The First Rainy Day.

When I was in Italy I observed how every first day of rain after many sunny days always had the effect of dramatically increase traffic. This was especially evident after long sunny periods in summer; after all that sun, the first rainy day would have the good effect of producing that sweet aroma of dust blown off the road by the rain drops, and the bad effect of increasing traffic in a unbelievable manner.
At the time I explained this phenomenon thinking that, during sunny days, Italian people drive their scooters or motorcycles, and when the rain comes they have to take the car to stay dry. Since many people drive two-wheelers, the explanation was somewhat logical. Another additional explanation was that car accidents are more frequent due to slippery roads. Since car accidents tend to slow down traffic, that was also a good explanation. The reason accidents are more frequent the first rainy day is that roads, since they have not been washed by the rain for a few days, tend to be covered in dust; when it finally rains, that dust produces a slippery coating that makes driving hazardous.
When I lived in Switzerland for a few months, I observed the same thing. The first day of rain after a few days of sun, produced a great increase of traffic. In Switzerland I don’t recall many motorcycles and I never saw any traffic jams caused by car accidents.
When I moved to Seattle I noticed the same phenomenon. Again, people don’t tend to drive motorcycles all that much around here. Some people do ride bikes but, since it rains most of the time anyway, they don’t seem to care if they get wet.
This morning I witnessed this phenomenon again. It had been sunny for several days and today it rains. The traffic is horrible, but there were no accidents; just lots of cars.
I have no explanation. Can somebody tell me why the first day of rain, after long stretches of sun, causes the traffic to get so bad everywhere in the world?

Friday, July 14, 2006

How to setup a Podcast in less than two hours.

What is Podcasting? In a nutshell Podcasting is a form of Syndication where a publisher records content into Multimedia files and makes it available to the world for listening or viewing. A Podcast is published with an RSS feed containing Podcast specific tags to describe the type and location of the multimedia files, the title, the genre, copyright and license information etc...

A listener or viewer subscribes to Podcasts with software such as iTunes. Once subscribed, the software downloads the multimedia content into a PC or device able to play it. Often the content is in the form of MP3 files for audio Podcasts and the device is an MP3 player such as iPOD. For a video Podcast the content is most often published in the form of MP4 files and the device is an MP4 player such as a Video iPod.

If you use iTunes, you may want to check out iTunes Essential tips for podcast lovers. It will give you all the information you need to understand podcasting the iTunes way.

While the concept of Podcasting has been around as early as 2000, it was only around the end of 2004 that it took off and thousands of Podcasts started to circulate.
For more general information on Podcasting take a look at Wikipedia under Podcasting.

In this article I’d like to describe how you can create an Audio Podcast in less than two hours mostly using free tools. This article describes one way of doing it, but there are many other ways. Let’s get started...

First of all, you need audio or video files with content you want to publish! Assuming you want to publish Audio files and that the content of the Podcast is a speaker talking about something, there are two main ways to generate this content.

The first one is to record the audio with a microphone and a recording device that allows you to generate good quality sound files.

The second option is to type the text with a computer and have a Text To Speech software read it and generate the audio file for you. As a Text To Speech engine I recommend "TextAloud", by NextUp. It costs only a $30 and if you purchase some of the advanced natural voices (another $35) the quality is decently good. You may disagree, so you should evaluate the product and find out if you like it. At the end of this article you’ll find the link to an MP3 with the content of this post read by TextAloud using one of the AT&T natural voices. Check it out!

Once you have the audio files you need to host them somewhere. These files can get very big so you need a reliable service that is not going to charge a ton of money for bandwidth in case your PodCast gets very popular. I suggest FREE. You don’t get cheaper than that! Such service exists if you plan on releasing your content with a Creative Common license. Check out www.archive.org which provides hosting for multimedia files for free, and no limits in bandwidth. The setup on www.archive.org is a little strange; for this reason I’ll give you some details to make it easier.

First of all you need to create an account. Go to www.archive.org home page and click on Upload your own recordings in the Audio section. It will ask you if you want to login or join. Since I assume you have no account yet, you must go to "Join" (it’s free, so don’t worry about getting your credit card ready). All you need is an email address, a password and a screen name. Once you are done and your account is created, go back on the main page of archive.org and click again on the "Upload your own recordings". At this point you should already be logged in (if you are not, do so).

The upload page will ask you an identifier for your item. It is basically asking a name for the collection of files you are going to upload. Let’s assume that you want call your collection "mypodcast" (original, huh?). Simply type that into the input box on the upload page and press "Create Item". At this point the collection with that name gets created. After creation the collection is in "check-out" mode; that means you can upload files into it (with FTP or a browser) and describe them. Follow the instructions, describe your files and pick a license type...

When you are done uploading you’ll need to check-in the files in order to make them available to the public. Follow the instructions to do so.
An undocumented (or poorly documented) trick I found. You can always checkout a previously checked-in collection with the following web API:


You can check-in the collection with:


You can check the details of a collection with:


You can download the files that you uploaded using:


Simple, isn’t it?

If everything went well, you should see your files when you browse your collection’s detail page. These are the URLs that you can use to publish your Podcast.
The hardest part is done! Now you need to create an RSS feed with your Podcast information and the links to the audio files in it. How to do so?

I suggest that you use a combination of Blogger and FeedBurner; Blogger is good to create and manage the Atom feed and FeedBurner to create the RSS feed from the atom feed. Complicated? Not really! It’s actually very simple once you get going and understand the concepts.

First go to blogger.com, create an account if you don’t have one and create a new blog. The instructions are clear and the process easy. Once you have a blog, simply create a post containing, anywhere in the text, a link to any of your audio files hosted on www.archive.org.

Now, go to FeedBurner.com, create an account if you don’t have one and create a feed from the blogger’s blog. FeedBurner has a good Quick Start guide that will guide you in the various steps. You really need to understand what you are doing anyway, so a little bit of reading and trying will only be good.

The important part at this point is that you setup and activate the SmartCast section of the FeedBurner feed settings. That will instruct FeedBurner to add all the Podcast information necessary for iTunes to work with your feed.

Well, you are done! You can just run iTunes and subscribe to your feed! To do so go to the "Advanced" menu and select Subscribe to Feed option. Put in the URL of the FeedBurner RSS feed. That’s going to look something like http://feeds.feedburner.com/mypodcast.

The next step is to make sure people know that your Podcast exists. To do so the best way is to get listed on iTunes. Go to the music store, select Podcasts and look for the “Submit Podcast” link. Go from there… your traffic will explode.

If you want more information on the iTunes requirments for RSS feeds, check out Podcasting and iTunes: Technical specification.

Imagine the possibilities! Now you can have your private radio show with potentially thousends of listeners!! I whish I had this when I was a kid :)

Audio Podcast of this Post

Friday, July 7, 2006

Apple Video iPOD, the 10 minutes user experience.

I recently bought a 60 Gb Video iPOD.

First of all let me state that I believe the product is a piece of extremely high quality electronics and that Apple really got this one right: the device is slick, attractive, made of high quality materials and works really well. The display is amazing and the quality of the audio very good. The Volume is powerful and you don't have to worry about being in a loud place and try to listen to your music. You can crank it up and hear very well in most conditions...

...I could go in many details but you'll find much better product reviews elsewhere and I am not going to attempt writing one here. In this post I will concentrate only on my impressions of the user experience during the very first 10 minutes after you get home with your brand new iPOD still in the box and a wallet that feels $400 + TAX lighter...

Let’s get started. You already went to your favorite electronic store straight to the dedicated Apple section. You asked for Video iPOD... the teenager you asked to opens the glass cabinet that stores 3 or 4 iPODs and hands you the box thinking "you bastard! I want one of these for myself!". After checking out all the accessories (and perhaps picking up some) you went to pay for it, felt guilty for spending so much money on an luxury electronic toy, jumped in the car, ran home....

...you are finally sitting at your desk, turn on your computer and look at the brand new shiny box staring at you and begging to be opened. Here is what you are going to think:

The product comes in a very small and slick package. If you are like me the thought that you paid too much for such a small box will cross your mind. Don't worry, that thought won't last long.

The package contains the iPOD, CD with iTunes + iPOD drivers, a bag with various things including the earpieces and the USB connector and a very tiny manual. The manual may seem too small to be useful, but amazingly you don't need anything more than that. I didn't even look mine. iPOD is truly easy to use. Good job Apple!

The package is well done, however you need to be careful because the device itself is not secured in any way to it. When you open it up it will fall off the package on your table (or floor) if you don't keep the box horizontal. With the $400 still in your mind that won’t be a pleasant surprise. Apple should either secure it a bit better or change the design of the package to avoid the problem.

The parts with wires (USB and earpieces) are inside a sealed opaque white package. Such package can be hard to open. You would be tempted to open it with scissor with the risk of cutting the thin wires inside. A transparent bag, or a bag with an easy to open mechanism, would have been a better choice.

The ear piece foam covers are very thin and over packaged. To take them out the package you are supposed to rip the package along an especially made cut. If you do too quickly (still shacking for having dropped your iPOD on the floor) you would rip the ear piece too. You need to use you scissors or you need to be extremely careful. Apple should review the choice of packaging here. A small transparent plastic box that you can use to store these delicate parts would seem like a much higher quality choice.

Even if you succeed in taking the foam covers from the bag without destroying them you’ll eventually find that they are useless; too thin and flimsy. They come off the earpiece way too easily; they cover the “L” and “R” labels on the ear piece and they are just annoying.

I guess I have small ears because the ear pieces don't fit in mine; they fall right off. To solve the problem I had to buy a third party attachment (made by Griffin) that allows me to select a smaller dimension. I recommend such attachments if you have the same problem. Given that I'm the only person I know that seem to have this problem I believe that Apple has no reason to worry much about it.

The pouch that comes with your iPOD is cheap and doesn't have any pocket for the ear pieces. Not big deal but for the price they could have done a bit better.

In order to install iTunes you are asked to type-in the serial number of the iPOD. That 11 characters alphanumeric code is printed in the back of the iPOD and is WAY too small. I mean, tiny! If you have any eye sight problems you'd never be able to read it. You may need a magnifying glass, no kidding! I don't have any eye sight issues and I struggled. Apple, can you please print that darn code a little bit bigger? Please? It’s not going to cost much, I promise!

If you use Windows you need to reboot your machine after installing iTunes. Oh well. I am used to it… but still annoying. I bet this is Microsoft fault, and not really Apple.

iTunes really wants to get a credit card number from you, even if you just want to download something free from the music store! Why do they want to get that number from me? I don't like that at all. Apple, if you have free stuff and that’s all I care about, can you please not ask me my CC number? Thanks!

If you download something free Apple will send you an email that looks like the confirmation of an order with balance $0. I personally don’t like that. Every time I get such email in my inbox it makes me think somebody used my account to buy music in my name using my CC.

Overall the iPOD is an awesome device but still find that lack of attention to the details of the user experience in the first 10 minutes of the purchase is something that requires very little for Apple to fix and that could make an OK customer experience into an almost perfect customer experience.

Monday, March 13, 2006

UIEvolution's UJML 2.0 !! Technology for everybody to play with!

UIEvolution released a beta of UJML Platform 2.0, the new and improved version of the powerful UJML platform. The best thing is that it's free! You can download it and use it as much as you like!! [for non-commerical purposes]

This is an exciting technology milestone that should please anybody that ever tried to develope and deploy truly cross-platform software targeting any device and any network. Cellular phones, PDA, PCs... you name it.

To give you an idea of what you can do with UJML 2.0 I'll mention that this is the new and improved version of the technology used to develope some of the most exciting titles for mobile available today. Some examples of products developed entirely in UJML are: The Chronicles of Narnia for Mobile, Narnia Chess, Trivial Pursuit, ESPN Bottomline, mobile movies.com, Square Enix Excite Fusion, Square Enix Gallery and many others.

Check this out for more screen shots and details.

Also, check my post about the fire simulation algorithm to see an example of UJML written by me in action.

What does Platform 2.0 offers compared to 1.5? There is a long list of features and I reccomend that you download the SDK and try it out. The documentation is pretty good.

My personal favorite 3 additions to this version of the platform:
  1. A completly new IDE with integrated editor and debugger based on the Eclipse platform is the most obvious and noticable change. This makes development alot easier compared to 1.5!! You are also going to love the automatic update feature that will bring to you all the latest and greates additions and fixes.
  2. The major addition in the UJML 2.0 language is the new object model based on the concept of components.
  3. Another important addition to the language is the concept of resizable arrays

Sunday, March 12, 2006

When (beta) web sites crash...

I see many of the major web 2.0 beta sites down more and more often lately. Here is an example of a screen shot of what you can expect at times. Click on it to see it in full size.

Friday, March 10, 2006

My son is a comedian.

My son Marco is about 3 years old and he can be as funny as a professional comedian. Sometimes he means to be funny; sometimes he just is naturally. I don't know where he got that side, but he just cracks me up at times. Today just before dinner he looked at me all serious and proclaimed:
LOL. I almost died. When I recomposed myself I realized that he meant "chicken noodle soup".

I don't know why but the image of a chicken little soup was just hilarious. I had to share it with you.

Ah... I almost forgot... since I'm in the "chicken" and "funny" topic, check out this crazy link: http://www.subservientchicken.com/

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

The invasion of the beta sites

BETA. It used to be just a Greek letter or a code name for programmers and geeks; today is a corporate status-symbol and is recognized by most people.

Every website and web-service seems to be released in beta in the Web 2.0 world; that is not such a bad thing, except that the beta status sometimes lingers for years. I decided to call this "the invasion of the beta-sites".

The little "BETA" icon is popping up everywhere next to brand names and company logos. The combination of the old "TM" (Trademark) and the new "BETA" is now a must-have around catchy and colorful free-service names ending in .COM.

Perhaps this period will be remembered as the era of the .BETACOMs that followed the crash of the .COMs (.ALPHACOMs?).

[Gosh, I love playing with words.]

I decided to start documenting this moment in time and create a little collection of the BETA-LOGOS. I'll add new logos to this collection and republish this post as I go. Please suggest new ones if you know of some that I missed. Subscribe to my RSS feed to get the latest updates.

You'll notice how many of these logos are from Google, which I believe started this beta-site-trend. More and more sites are opening everyday and following the Google example.

NOTE: All the images in this page are owned and trademarked by the respective owners; I publish them here only for historical documentation and as a necessary veichle for commentary and criticism that is the subject of this post.

Web 2.0 Microsoft style: infiltrate and conquer!

Looks like Microsoft is investing even more into a business model Web 2.0 style with a twist.

See: http://officelive.microsoft.com/

Some of the main Web 2.0 elements are all there:

(1) On-line service free for the subscriber.
(2) Subscribers are the content providers.
(3) Service released early as Beta.
(4) Advertisement supported model.

Sounds familiar?

Obviously they also have to inject their Microsoft twist to it; a perfect trojan horse methodology: infiltrate and conquer...

If you try to subscribe using FireFox they tell you to go get IE.

Again, sounds familiar?

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

March 8th, "Festa della Donna"

March 8th in Italy is "Festa della Donna" or "Women's day". On this day men in Italy traditionally bring some "Mimosa" to all the women they think they will meet during the day. “Mimosa" is a small yellow flower that grows on Mimosa trees and that blooms right around the beginning of March. It is not uncommon on March 8th to see guys with large boxes full of Mimosa going to work or to school in the morning, ready to distribute the yellow flowers in large quantities. Many people even grow Mimosa trees in their back yard to make sure they have enough flowers on March 8th. I thought many times to bring this tradition to the States and on March 8th go around and give Mimosas; I wonder if that would seem weird. I bet it would; I also bet I woudn't be able to find Mimosas very easily around here. Oh well :) I'll just post a photo for all the women that I know. Happy woman's day!!

Friday, March 3, 2006

Automatic Art, drawing without knowing.

When I am listening carefully at something important and I am very absorbed in the subject but, at the same time, the subject or the situation doesn't require for me to look or do anything in particular, I tend to start drawing stuff on whatever piece of paper is in front of me. You probably have done that a million times when you are on the phone and you have paper and pencil handy.

For me these drawings usually start from the center and usually end up being geometric compositions formed by lines and curves disposed in intricate patterns. The longer the concentration period lasts, the bigger the drawing gets.

In lack of a better name I call this "Automatic Art" or "Telephone Art". While I'm doing it I don't really pay any attention to it. It kind of just happen and it's completly driven by my [crazy] subconscious. This is similar to when you drive but you don't realize that you are doing so, and when you look back you can't remember the moment that you drove past certain spots you know were on your path.

Drawing helps concentrating because it removes any visual distraction and foreign stimulation. The result of this drawing "without thinking about it" is sometimes interesting to look at. Here is an example I happen to draw today while I was listening to a TV show that wasn't visually interesting:

What do you think about it? If you are a psychologist perhaps you just concluded that I'm off the deep end... Oh well, if that's the case let me know the bad news :)

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Things That Do Not Make Sense

I don't know why I am deeply fascinated by observations or experiment results that we can't explain with today's scientific knowledge. I just am. Perhaps it’s because, as somebody that likes to "create", it is nice to know that there is still so much that needs to be done. Perhaps it’s because I think that looking at what we do not understand is the only way to progress and learn. Perhaps it’s because I'm used to solve complex problems everyday, and studying what I don't know is a daily activity for me. Perhaps it’s because I think that keeping an open mind is critical and I am convinced that one necessary exercise to keep an open mind is to look at what we don't understand. Perhaps it's because the realization that there is alot that we do not underastand is a driving force toward discovery. Perhaps it's because I don't understand how it is possible that smart people or recognized groups periodically claim that if something can't be explain than it must be untrue or just a fraud.
It's because of my fascination with the unknown that I found the "13 things that do not make sense" article, published on March 19, 2005 on the NewScientistSpace, very interesting. The subjects in the article are:
1 The placebo effect
2 The horizon problem
3 Ultra-energetic cosmic rays
4 Belfast homeopathy results
5 Dark matter
6 Viking's methane
7 Tetraneutrons
8 The Pioneer anomaly
9 Dark energy
10 The Kuiper cliff
11 The Wow signal
12 Not-so-constant constants
13 Cold fusion
An interesting and not difficult reading.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Google is Hiring on the Moon.

Google is Hiring on the Moon.

Here is some more Google easter eggs:

Search for miserable failure and look at the first result you get.

Pigeon Google.

Various Google editions: Linux, Microsoft, Mac, BSD

Strange languages supported by Google: Bork, Elmer Fudd, Pig latin, Hacker, Klingon,

Google Gulp (beta)

Searches for answer to life, the universe, and everything return 42.

Searches for more evil than satan himself used to return a link to Microsoft; it doesn't work anymore :)

Phony (non-Google) easter eggs:

Search for French Military Victories and press the "I'm feeling lucky" button.
Search for elgoog (google reversed) and press the "I'm feeling lucky" button.

Algorithm to Catch Lies

If you read some of my previous posts on Technology you probably noticed that I've been playing and experimenting with some aspects of text elaboration (see posts on: generated stylized text, Google translator, Babelfish translator). The following falls into that category and caught my attention.

According to the research carried by Prof. James Pennebaker at the University of Austin in Texas and Prof. David Skillcorn at Queen's University in Ontario, there is a text elaboration algorithm to catch lies and potential fraud in any English text.

Pennbaker developed a deception model that can be applied to speeches, emails or any other text and automatically score the text based on its supposed deception level. The symptoms of a deceptive communication were identified by Pennbaker as (1) a decreased frequency of first-person pronouns (2) a decreased frequency of exception words, such as `however' and `unless' (3) an increased frequency of negative emotion words (4) an increased frequency of action words. This deception model was coded into an algorithm that he called LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count). The scientific base for such algorithm is Pennebaker research on the psychology of word use.

Skillscorn applied some of these ideas to study organized behavior, fraud detection and potential terrorist communication. The results seem to be promising, but the research continues.

Imagine the possibilities and ramifications of the results of this research. Imagine if email clients were able to score the level of potential deception of any email that you receive. Would you be interested in having that kind of tool?
While this technology is interesting and potentially useful, it also suffers from an implicit self-destructive defect that, I believe, will make it hard to succeed in the long term. I call discoveries with this defect "Suicidal Models".
In fact, if this technology was wide-spread and all email clients or word processors integrated a deception scoring system, then anybody could modify a text to make it look truthful to the specific algorithm. Would this be a tool in the arsenal of deceiving minds instead of a lie detector? Something that helps them lie even better? You decide.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Altavista Babelfish Lost in Translation.

Now that I had fun with Google Translator, I decided to try the Altavista Babelfish translator and see if you can obtain any better results.

I slightly modified my Java program (The Translator Buster) to hit the Babelfish site instead of the Google site. I ran the first test with the simple phrase “I am a writer”. I had it converted into Italian and than back into English; this methodology is described in great details in my previous post about Google Translator.

Sit down! Ready? Here is the news! The result is EXACTLY the same obtained with Google!!! Errors and everything! The phrase gets translated first into “Sono un produttore” and then into “They are a producer”, exactly like it happens using Google Translator.

Is that a coincidence? Well, if both translations were correct, then I would conclude that both translators work perfectly. The fact that both translators completely screwed up the translation in the EXACT same way seems very odd. Two translators, completly lost in translation, ending up in the same place. What are the odds?

Let’s compare more complicated results.

The following is a quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:
All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.

I report here the result of translating this back and forth from English to Italian 10 times with both Babelfish and Google translator. Here we go:

Babelfish results:
The thoughts all that in order to align must examine it have been thoughts of the migliaia already of the periods; but for so that it renders in order to align ours, than that that what those that that what must honestly think them anchorage of the surplus, the finchè must they that the puttinges that it uproots in our personal experience.
Google results:
The thoughts all that in order to align must examine it have been thoughts of the migliaia already of the periods; but for so that it renders in order to align ours, than that that what those that that what must honestly think them anchorage of the surplus, the finchè must they that the puttinges that it uproots in our personal experience.

You got it!! The results are the exact same! Coincidence? I don’t think so!

Running enough tests I observed cases where I got slightly different results. Here is an example. The original quote is from Alvin Toffler:

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

And the results obtained with the two translators are:

Babelfish results:
Those the illetterati ones of ventunesimo the century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.
Google results:
Illetterato one of ventunesimo the century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, the unlearn and not relearn.

My fist wild guess after running these tests is that both Google and Babelfish run the same translation back-end engine. I coudn't find any mention of this fact anywhere, but it seems pretty obvious to me.

Given that Altavista Babelfish has alot more supported languages, it is possible that Google bought the translator from Altavista.

BTW, I also tried with some other languages (like French and German) with very similar results.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Google Translator Lost in Translation

Have you ever used one of these on-line translators (like Google Translator) to translate anything from one languge to another? If you did, I hope you didn't rely on these tools to translate any critical information. At times they may be useful; they are certainly free for you; but they are also always far from giving you great and accurate results.

Theoretically, if there really was a translator that works from language A to language B and from language B to language A, then it should be possible to submit a text in language A, translate it into B and then translate that translation back into language A. The result should maintain the original meaning.

For example if I translate the phrase "I am a writer" in Italian, the correct translation is "Io sono uno scrittore". If I translate "Io sono uno scrittore" from Italian back to English the correct translation is "I am a writer". The result is exactly the same. It doesn't matter how many times I repeat the process. The text maintains the same meaning.

On the other hand, if every time that you translate a text the meaning changes a little bit, the sense of a text that gets translated back and forth a number of times drifts further and further from the original. If you do enough translations back and forth you end up with something completely different from the original.

This is exactly what happens with current major on-line translators.

To demostrate what I mean I wrote a small Java program that submits a text in English to Google Translator for translation into a different language; the result is caputured and submitted to Google for translation back to English. The new English version is submitted again, and the cycle is repeated a number of times. What you get in the end is sometimes really different from the original.

I'll give you some real examples.

First of all I tried with the simple phrase “I am a writer”, as mentioned above. The translation to Italian given by Google Translator is “Sono un produttore”. This is wrong already. That means “I am a producer”. If I give this back to Google for translation in English I get “They are a producer”. It went from “I” to “they” and from “writer” to “producer”. The sense of the original is completely distorted.

Let’s try something more complex. The following is an extract from the speech that President George W. Bush gave in his first State Of The Union in 2001:

I want to thank so many of you who have accepted my invitation to come to the White House to discuss important issues. We're off to a good start. I will continue to meet with you and ask for your input. You have been kind and candid, and I thank you for making a new President feel welcome.

Using my program I submitted this to Google and translated it back and forth from Engish to Italian and from Italian to English 10 times. In the end of this process the text has been distorted into:

I wish that ringraziar many that they have accepted the mines they have invited in order to come to lodge the woman white woman of the woman of the woman of the woman of the woman of the woman of the woman of the woman of the woman in order to discuss important editions. We are isinseriti to a good beginning. I will continue to come it in order to put itself in contact with and asking yours the immesso. You have been kind and candid and ringrazio in order to make a new welcome of tact of the president.

Huh? Among all the various errors the funniest is that the “white house” for some reason became “white woman” (repeated a number of times), and “invitation” became “mines”.

Let’s see more examples. The next is an extract from a news article published on the INDOLink website about Dick Cheney hunting stunts.

The facts first, that have all the ingredients of a thriller because of the secrecy surrounding them. The hero of the thriller is Dick Cheney, second in command to George W. Bush, the man who wanted to get Osama bin Laden but could not.

After a few passes from English to Italian, this is what I ended up with:

The facts in the first place, that have all the ingredients of a moving history because of the segretezza that encircles them. The hero of the moving history is to the inner part of second the place Dick Cheney, to the inner part of the place that directs George W. Bush, the man who has wished to obtain the bucket of loaded Osama but he could not.

I love how “Bin Laden” ends up reading “bucket of loaded Osama”. Jokes come to mind, but to keep this blog PG-10 I’ll leave them for the reader to imagine.

I’ll give a third example. This is from a speech by English Prime Minister Tony Blair addressing the war with Iraq in March 2003.

Tonight, British servicemen and women are engaged from air, land and sea. Their mission: to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.

And after a few passes with the translation back and forth from English to Italian and from Italian to English this is what it becames:

This evening, the British mechanics and the women are support to you from air, earth and the sea. Their mission: for for of removal of Saddam di Hussein that is fed and disarming the relative Iraq of the destruction square you which they collect in a heap.

I have no idea how it went from "disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction" to "and disarming the relative Iraq of the destruction square you which they collect in a heap.".

You can try this by your own by hand using Google Translator.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Stylized Phrase Generator

From time to time I experiement with new technologies and new ideas.

This idea was inspired by Alessandro, a dear and very creative old friend that wrote some very nifty Italian text generators.

Stylized Phrase Generator, or SPG, is an experimental software prototype that I wrote for fun in my rare spare time. It is designed to read a text (or book), learn the style and the vocabulary and generate any number of new sentences using the same “style” and vocabulary learnt from the original. The result is designed to be “readable”, to look and sound like the original, but not necessarily make any real sense. In other words, SPG is a generator of Stylized nonsense.

In its current incarnation SPG is written in Java. It can create any number of pages of output composed by any number of sentences. The output can be formatted based on text templates and encoded based on any filter that can be expressed in Java. Currently the available encodings I wrote are for XML and HTML escaping and formatting.

The current template that I’m using is designed to generate an Atom XML feed that can be burnt into an RSS feed and distributed for the amusement of subscribers.
The first feed generated by SPG that I’m going to publish and update periodically can be found here:


It is published by FeedBurner and you can subscribe to it; please post here your comments on the feed. I am very interested in knowing what you think.
If enough people show interest I will keep adding new styles and adjust the algorithm for the amusement of the readers (keep in mind that this is a spare-time project, I do this for fun and I am a busy guy, so progress may be slow).

How does it work? In brief the algorithm takes the original text and builds a vocabulary of all the words and puntuaction marks found in it. For each word the algorithm builds a list of all words that immadiatly followed it at any point in the text. This list is prioritized based on the relative probability. For example if the word "the" is followed 2 times by "house" and 1 time by "cat" in the text, then the probability of "house" to follow "the" is 66%, and the probability of "cat" to follow "the" is 33%. Once this learning phase is completed, the algorithm can use this knoweldge to generate phrases. Words are randomly picked based on that knoweldge and respecting the probability to occur in the available learnt succession.

If there is any interest in the idea I’ll eventually describe the algorithm in more detail and perhaps publish the Java source code and make it Public Domain. The method described here may change as I refine it. As you know, the devil is in the details!!

Let me give you some example of the first results I obtained. For more examples just subscribe to the feed and keep following it as I add new styles and as I refine SPG.

I fed to the software the text of “As You Like It” (the script of the William Shakespeare play), and here is a snippet of what it generated:

ROSALIND. How say you have mercy, and happiness; for fashion bequeathed me thou liest in some hope. And if thou, and wip'd with my heart Lie Direct; I am not so.
Here is an example generated from the text of the English constitution:

The moderate Liberal rule by a rectified perception of a great majority of the rarest. English are not good at social power. When the repeated influence equivalent to expect what is scanty, in the sudden emergency, this change is undoubtedly positive.
As you can see the text is readable but it speaks nonsense. On the other hand it can be entertaining to read especially when it happens to acquire a meaning that is, or can be interpreted, as real.

One of the interesting things I learnt is that the same program works equally well, without modifications, if applied to text written in other languages. So far I have tested it with some English and Italian texts.

I also discovered that, in general, the more the reader doesn’t understand the subject and the language in the original text, the more the sentences generated by SPG seem to make sense.

This tells you something interesting about human mind. When you do not understand a subject you tend to believe and find meaning of what you hear, even if what you hear is a complete nonsense.

Friday, February 17, 2006

What is Ajax? Past, Present and Future.

The world is changing. This opening line from the Lord of the Rings is powerful; these words resonate in my mind every time I think about what is happening in the World Wide Web today.
Things are boiling hard and the lessons learnt from the failure of .COM era are producing new needs and new ideas. New concepts are being created every day and becoming part of a new landscape that is still unshaped and changing daily.
A new term has been forged to describe in one word a set of technologies and concepts that developers are putting together to create the new and remodeled Web 2.0 scenario. This term is Ajax. It means “Asynchronous JavaScript and XML”.

Is this a new technology? Not really. It is mostly a new way of reusing “old” technology.

To explain this concept I’ll briefly describe the various parts of the definition of Ajax, how they came to existence and why they are now melted together.


JavaScript, originally called LiveWire and LiveScript, has been around since Netscape 2 which was released in early 1996. The most important additions to this version of the browser were frames and JavaScript.
This new language looked somewhat similar to Java and was very useful to create interactive web pages with embedded logic. The example of Netscape was followed by Microsoft that spewed out variations under the name of Jscript and Active Scripting.

The usual scenario that annoyingly repeats itself in history over and over. Somebody comes up with a good idea. Somebody else likes it and makes its own version, without substantial improvements, confusing the world and generating strands of similar but not completely compatible technologies.


It all started at IBM in 1969, with the Generalized Markup Language (GML). This was invented by Charles Goldfarb, Ed Losher and Ray Lorie during a research project on integrated law office information systems. It was used as a means of allowing text editing, formatting and document sharing.
Goldfarb carried on the work on GML and in 1974 invented the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). In 1986 this was adopted as one of the ISO standards.

In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee invents HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) while working at computer services at CERN (European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, Switzerland). The first web browser to support HTML was a prototype written by Tim on a NeXT computer.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) combined the power of SGML with the simplicity of HTML and came up with XML, which is a small subset of SGML.

HTML grew into various incarnations, and the latest ones include XHTML and CSS, which allow for a more powerful and generalized description of web pages.


Now, what about the word “Asynchronous” in the definition of Ajax?

This describes the addition of XMLHttpRequest Object to the tools available to the JavaScript developer. This Object allows asynchronous retrieval and manipulation of XML data. It was introduced as an ActiveX object by Microsoft and today is available as a native object within both Mozilla and Apple’s Safari browsers.

In other words, the XMLHttpRequest object ties up JavaScript and XML into something powerful and somewhat innovative.

JavaScript and XML combined with the XMLHttpRequest object provide the foundation for client side computation and presentation of data. Their use is acquiring new forms and is becoming the technology trend of today’s web.

The World is Changing

Unfortunately the phrase “The World is Changing” describes well the situation of the Web today, but it doesn’t describe something crystallized and stable; in fact, it is not. It is changing, rapidly, in a way that resembles Darwinian species evolution. Some strand of changes survives. Others die. Only the best moves forward.

This process takes time and hopefully will lead to good results in the end.

The Hope

It would be great if there was a single technology standard (not maker!) that is guaranteed to work well on all platforms, browsers and servers. It would be great if developers and users didn’t have to know about JavaScript security settings, various browser versions and all sort of incompatibilities across platforms.

It is very hard today for a developer to write a piece of JavaScript that is guaranteed to work well on all browsers, or at least the most important ones.

Take the XMLHttpRequest object for example. It is an ActiveX object in IE, but it is a native object in Safari and Mozilla. This means that you instantiate it in different ways depending on the browser, and the JavaScript code needs to find out which way to use and do the right thing accordingly. This is just one of the examples, but there are many others. Often the differences between browsers and standards are small, but big enough to increase the complexity of development and the frustration of users.

There is the need for something truly standard that solves all these problems, or for a consortium to standardize what’s happening. In reality the game seems to be in the hands of some major players that may or may not decide to adhere to whatever standard is proposed. Perhaps, and hopefully, this will change too and major players will be forced to do what is good for the users and not what is good for themselfs.

The Web needs to be an easier place for creativity to develop great content; it does not need to be a fighting arena for supremacy and should not force engineers to spend all their energies to create sophisticated ways to work around artificial and complex compatibility issues across technology makers.

Monday, February 13, 2006

An Italian in the States: Part 6 - Houses and Buildings

When I moved to America I knew absolutely nothing about construction methods of buildings in the states. Not that I was an expert of Italian house construction, but I certainly knew a lot more about bricks and mortar than studs and sheet-rock.
It has been one of the many learning experience for me and I had to start from the bottom.
When I first heard that houses are kept up with studs, I had to look in the dictionary. Under “stud” the first definition listed was “a man who is virile and sexually active”. Another definition was “adult male horse kept for breeding”. Before I saw the right definition (“scantling: an upright in house framing”) the thought that I was in a sexiest and shallow society that claims that virile man keep up houses passed briefly in my mind.
When I realized that walls are made out of some kind of thin material I asked about it and I was told that it is sheetrock. The word materialized in my mind the image of thin layers of rock machined in super warehouses with huge wet saws slicing some kind of natural stone blocks. This strange scifi images (plus the alienating fact that “sheet” - see "An Italian in the States - part 4 - Language" - is one of these words that I tried to avoid as much as possible for a while) made me feel little like if I was born again and had to relearn even the most common knowledge facts. I finally understood why immigrants are also called “aliens”. I felt like one, in a sense.
If you go inside an Italian house, old or new, and you touch the wall you’ll realize what all this difference that I’m talking about is. You can press as hard as you want or even punch or kick the wall really hard and it won’t move an inch. It’s rock solid. Literally!
In “new” constructions (100 years old or newer) all walls, internal or external, are made out of bricks and concrete. They are then covered with plaster and painted or covered with wallpaper.
Older buildings, especially in small towns in the country, have solid walls made out of natural stone and they can be a few feet thick.
If you were to stay in a house in Italy and you wanted to do even the simplest operation such as hanging a picture on the wall, you would notice how different things are. Forget tacks or large wood nails. For small picture frames you would have to buy tempered steel nails. These tough black nails are tiny (about 1” long), sharp like a knife and hard like… well… hardened and tempered steel!
You hammer them through a layer of plaster and bricks or stone. Since they are so hard they are also brittle and often they bend or break in the operation. When that happens you need to pull out the piece left in the wall and try a new one.
If you want to hang something heavier you need to use a good drill with a masonry bit. Lots of dust and noise later you would have to insert an expansion screw and tight it in. These screws are similar to some of the heavy duty sheet-rock fasteners that you use here in the States for heavy picture frames in cases when you don't have a stud in the right spot.
When you tight these screws they expand in the wall and hold almost anything. If you thigh it too much the brick may collapse and you could find yourself with the dirty chore of patching a brick wall with newspaper and plaster… and lots of patience.
If you ever wanted to put a new electrical wire in a wall you would be up for a challenge that very few homeowners take on themselves in Italy. You would have to cut what we call a “traccia”, or track. This is a 2” - 3” deep groove in the bricks. It is done with a jack-hammer if you own one, or with a hammer and brick chisel otherwise.
Then you would have to put in an electrical plastic pipe and seal it in with plaster. After that you would have to resurface the wall, sand it and repaint. When you are done you would have to insert the 220V wire into the plastic pipe and hope that it doesn’t get stuck somewhere.
Cutting these tracks produces a lot of noise and dust.
Speaking of noise; newly built condos in Italy have long concrete pilasters with metal rods in it going from the foundation all the way to the roof. These are very solid, but they also transmit noise very easily. When you cut tracks in the wall the noise and vibrations travel across these pilasters and invade people’s living spaces. For your neighbors it sounds like you are working in their house.
When I moved to the States I couldn’t believe how weak walls are. You can easily go through a wall if you punch it (and you are lucky enough not to hit a stud). It took me a while to realize the anatomy of a house and when I found out that houses are kept together with nails, I couldn’t believe it. It was like somebody telling you that airplanes are kept together with scotch tape.
Don’t take me wrong, I didn’t think it was a lie or some sort of conspiracy against me. I knew it worked, but I had to see for myself. That is when I built a playhouse for my daughter (see photo) following all the construction techniques and materials used in real houses (except for plumbing, which the only thing missing).
Well, now I’m convinced. It works indeed. The playhouse is solid like a rock.
All of this, I have to say, makes me think about the story of the wolf and the Three Little Pigs. But that, I realize, is probably a European story anyway.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Celebrities Morph

In this photo I morphed two Hollywood celebrities into one face.
Can you guess who they are?

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Make Software your product, and service your business!

Today I was driving and my eye fell on a brochure I had in the car. The brochure comes from a metal retailer and the slogan on it claims "Our product is Metal. Our business is Service".
I immediately started thinking about this and I had an "Eureka!" moment. I realized that this short phrase captures exactly a key concept in the Web 2.0 sense applied to Software. I already had this concept in mind (summarized in my post "Software: service or product?"), but finding a summary of my thoughts on that one line was very revealing.
You produce Software but what you need to sell is a Service! The real value for your customers comes from the service that is generated around the product and not necessarily from the product by itself.
That is because products are generally static in nature. Like a piece of metal in a traditional old-fashion market. Each sale is a one-time deal. Software can be extremely dynamic and you can build a lot of value providing services around it.
This concept is especially important when the software that you sell is very adaptable and can make your customers money when they invest their time and creativity in it. These kind of customers depend on your product and on you to maximize their productivity and their revenue. For this reason the quality and nature of the service you provide should be a key point in your message and in your investment in a Software business.