Month: June 2005

Fun with Google Maps & Posters

A couple fun tools that’ve crossed my path the last few days:

  • GMapTrack: Make your own paths and waypoints in Google Maps (via Nivi)
  • Rastorbator: Rastorize images into PDF files, for printing wall-sized posters (via Jofish)

(I was going to post GMerge as well, but it’s been taken down after receiving what has to be the most friendly cease-and-decist letter I’ve ever read…)

UPS wearables & barcodes vs. RFID

Symbol’s WSS 1000
(the non-wireless, old version)

This month’s Technology Review has a brief article on how UPS has upgraded their Symbol Technology ring-scanner wearable computers to use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi instead of a wire to an arm-mounted computer. The article is missing a few details (most notably it makes it look like Symbol came in to oust some other vendor’s system, when in fact Symbol made the old system too), but it is a nice update on one of the early commercial wearable computer success stories.

One bit in the article that I found interesting was UPS’s comment on barcodes vs. RFID:

Robert Nonneman, a manager of industrial engineering at UPS, says the company has watched RFID for 15 years but doesn’t see it as an imminent solution to the problem of parcel tracking. In test runs, he says, RFID tags did not surpass the accuracy rate of bar code scanners. And an RFID rollout–including tags and a new technological infrastructure–would be costly. “You can’t simply replace optical scanners with an RFID reader and expect an improved return on investment,” he says. “There have to be process changes to leverage the technology.”

I remember years ago Dick Braley from FedEx talking about the possibility of using RFID to ping a room full of packages and determine which (if any) need to be shipped out that day. That sort of room-flooding is a very different application than scanning a single package, and is one that barcode-readers will have a hard time performing, but it sounds like it’s either not what UPS needs, would require a huge upgrade path or just not available yet from RFID technology.

Just as long as you’re not good enough to compete…

The Union-Tribune reports that Wal-Mart and other digital-photo printer services are refusing to print pictures that, in their opinion, look “too good” and thus might be copyrighted by a professional photographer. This is likely in response to guidelines drawn up by the Photo Marketing Association International, which among other things instruct “If there is not a clear lawful basis to make the copy, the safer course is to decline to copy.” While not legally binding, following the guidelines are a good hedge against being nailed for copyright infringement by the PMAI, as Kmart Corp. learned when it was sued in 1999.

I suspect these guidelines came out of a genuine desire to “protect our members’ legal rights,” but I can’t help but notice how well suited they are for stifling legitimate competition. If you’re a crappy photographer then no problem, go ahead and use the online photo-processing site. But if you’re good at using Photoshop and your high-end consumer digital camera then you’re going to get harassed. Next time leave it to a professional, or better yet become one yourself and join the PMAI. I’m sure flashing a membership card would be more than enough to convince the clerk at Wal-Mart that you’re legit.

(Link via Copyfight)

Update: I should point out it’s not just Wal-Mart that’s being hard-nosed here. On various blogs people are talking about trouble with a variety of other services, including Kinkos and Kodak’s Ofoto.

Borrowed Ladder

Today’s NYT article Social Security: Migrants Offer Numbers for Fee seriously reminds me of the “borrowed ladder” concept from the movie GATTACA:

Mr. Luviano, 39, obtained legal residence in the United States almost 20 years ago. But these days, back in Mexico, teaching beekeeping at the local high school in this hot, dusty town in the southwestern part of the country, Mr. Luviano is not using his Social Security number. So he is looking for an illegal immigrant in the United States to use it for him — providing a little cash along the way.

UbiComp Gaming Workshop

This year’s UbiComp 2005 conference will include a one-day workshop on Ubiquitous Computing, Entertainment and Games:

The theme of this workshop is ubiquitous computing entertainment, playful social networking, and games. Our goals are to provide a productive forum in which international researchers, members of the entertainment industry, game players, game designers, and game publishers can discuss key issues in ubiquitous gaming, present and future uses of ubiquitous computing that create compelling, playful and socially beneficial gaming experiences, and to facilitate an exchange of ideas that will allow ubiquitous games to break out of their current “niche” and into the mainstream.

The workshop will be September 11th, 2005 in Tokyo.

Trapped Christmas Presents

For over a decade my friend Jay and I have exchange trapped presents at Christmas. When I say trapped I mean it in the classic Circle of Death game style — if you open the present carelessly a buzzer will sound or explosive cap will trigger. It all started when we were designing traps for live-action role-playing games, but quickly became a challenge to one-up each other each year. These days we open all the other presents first and then settle down with our flashlights, dentist tools and wire clippers to work on opening each other’s presents while the rest of the family eats pie and enjoy themselves making unhelpful comments.

Jay and I each have our own style of trap-making. Jay has become a master of secreting traps in places that you’d think he couldn’t access. His high-point is probably the time he gave me a deck of gaming cards that he had somehow unsealed, hollowed out, rigged with a cap-popper trap, then resealed and reshrinkwrapped such that it looked like new again. (That’s rivaled by two years ago, when he managed to plant an explosive inside a cut-then-resealed chocolate egg.) I’m always trying a new angle on things — my favorite is still the time I gave him a “special” version of Looking Glass’ PC game System Shock, which included a specially-included candy red button in the second room of the game that when pressed would berate him for not checking closely for traps as it dropped powerful monsters on his head. (It always helps to know the programmers…)

This past Christmas I wanted to try a trap where the mechanism was plain to see but a puzzle to disarm. The result is the magnet trap shown bottom left. The metal plates at the bottom are sold in joke shops as Exploding Toilet Seat gags. They’re spring-loaded to lift up and set off a cap, but in this case the magnets attached to the top of the popper are being pressed down by the magnets attached to the top of the lid. On one side is a north-polarity magnet being pushed down by another north-polarity magnet, on the other side is a south-polarity magnet pushed down by another south-polarity magnet. The whole system is quite stable — until you try to turn the lid to open the jar. Then the north and south magnets on the lid switch positions and pull the poppers up, setting off the caps. You can see the whole thing in action by clicking on the picture below. Jay tried using magnets underneath the jar to counteract the ones on the lid, but that wasn’t enough force to fight both the magnets and the mechanical spring. I’ll leave the right way to disarm the trap (and the way I originally set it) as an exercise to the reader (and will probably eventually put it in an update).

Jay had two traps this year — the first was a buzzer trap held down by a Borg Teddy Bear that he had gotten at the Star Trek Experience in Los Vegas. It was rigged so if I moved the bear or pulled the wrong wire first it would go off. Remembering my MacGyver lore, I pulled the red one (or was it black?) and disarmed it. The main trap, however, was the bear itself — he had taken it to a teddy-bear factory and had them sew in a voicebox that played his own message. I didn’t set it off (I learned long ago never to press something from jay that says “press me” on it), but am still impressed. You can see it in action from the other movie linked below.

Magnet trap explained
(Quicktime, 3.1M)
Borg Teddy-bear trap
(Quicktime, 750K)

Update (7/24/05): explanation of how to disarm below the fold.

Sign of the times

I took this photo last week at the entrance to MARTA, Atlanta’s subway system.

It wasn’t so long ago that I would have taken a picture like this one in a foreign country as a reminder of how different life would be without our Bill of Rights. It’s amazing how quickly we’re letting it slip away from us…


Quote from a coworker:
People will only remain sheep until the grass starts to get sparse.

A little bit of friction

The PostSecret blog is a “community art project where people mail-in their secrets on one side of a homemade postcard.” Some are thoughtful, some disturbing, some kinda silly, but almost all are high quality. I think Sarah Boxer’s NYT Arts Review nails why that’s the case:

The Web site gives people simple instructions. Mail your secret anonymously on one side of a 4-by-6-inch postcard that you make yourself. That one constraint is a great sieve. It strains out lazy, impulsive confessors.

For PostSecret, you write, type or paste your secret on a postcard, and then, if you want, decorate the card with drawings or photographs. Next the stamp and then the mailbox. Yes, it’s work to confess. And it should be, if only for the sake of the person who might be listening.

That’s a lesson we need to remember as we design for more and more frictionless communication — sometimes a little friction is exactly what you want. (A special thanks to my dad for the link.)

Cone of silence

Coming next month to a store near you (via the New York Times):

The cone of silence, called Babble, is actually a device composed of a sound processor and several speakers that multiply and scramble voices that come within its range. About the size of a clock radio, the first model is designed for a person using a phone, but other models will work in open office space.

I’m imagining all sorts of cute hacks you could do with this. I especially want to set one up to cancel out my speech and simultaneously play music or pre-recorded/synthesized speech over it — turn your whole conversation into a badly dubbed movie!