November 2006

Tai-Chi turns your desk into a touch-pad

The New Scientist has a write-up on an EU-funded prototype system called Tai-Chi that can turn ordinary surfaces into a touch-pad input device just by attaching a tiny piezoelectric sensor (i.e. microphone) to the surface. In one configuration, the system figures out where you’re touching / tapping by listening to how vibrations are distorted by the object and then either comparing to a database of vibration “fingerprints.” The method requires calibration to create the database, but they’re claiming accuracy to within a few millimeters.

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No acupuncture vs. no pill

Discover Magazine describes a cute study where they pit fake acupuncture (with secretly retracting needles) vs. sugar pills to see which placebo effect works better:

After 10 weeks, subjects taking sham pills said their pain decreased an average of 1.50 points on the 10-point scale. After 8 weeks, those receiving fake acupuncture reported a drop of 2.64 points. In other words, not receiving acupuncture reduces pain more than not taking drugs.

Kaptchuk says that the rituals of medicine explain the difference: Performing acupuncture is more elaborate than prescribing medicine. Other rituals that may make patients feel better include “white coats, and stethoscopes that you don’t necessarily use, pictures on the wall, the way you reassure a patient, and the secretaries that sign you in.” Careful manipulation of such rituals could make all types of treatment more effective, Kaptchuk suggests.

(Thanks to Jill for the link!)

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Pieces of pi at Washington Park Station


I was in the Washington Park MAX Station in Portland yesterday, which includes a core sample taken during the tunnel’s construction along with a 16-million-year timeline showing when each sample had been at the Earth’s surface. Etched into the wall along the timeline include technical and mathematical discoveries, including 107 digits of pi. Only, I noticed as I read through the digits, it’s wrong. The first row is correct, but the rest looks random. My friend and I speculated on our ride back why that might be. Was it an estimate, the result of calculating only the first several terms of an infinite series? A deliberate retelling of an historically significant blunder? A secret code left by the artist that translates to “help, I’m being held captive in a Portland artist colony!”?

Google to the rescue, it turns out this was either a clever way of representing the first 1000 digits of pi, or more likely was a simple misreading of the reference book from which the number came. As Mark Cowan points out in Underground Pi, the numbers etched in stone in the subway were taken from A History of Pi, which prints the digits in rows of 10 groups of 10 digits. The artist clearly took his numbers from the first column in that reference, thus printing the first thru tenth fractional digits, the 101th-110th, etc.

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Buxton on alchemy vs. prospecting

In his closing plenary at this year’s CSCW, Bill Buxton made a provocative point about how to make a difference in the research world. His key point was that people often think of technology as alchemy, creating gold out of nothing. But alchemy (the creation of brand new ideas) is very hard and very rare, and is ultimately a fool’s game. Most progress comes not from alchemy but from prospecting, the recognition of good ideas that are already out there, the understanding of which ideas are ripe for exploitation and the ability to marshal the right resources to get them into the world. He quotes Alan Kay: “It takes almost as much creativity to understand a good idea as to have it in the first place.”


The example he gave was of the Blackboard, which was invented in 1801 and which Buxton claims revolutionized education more than every other technology introduced into schools since then put together. Before 1801 each child had his or her own slateboard, which he or she used to mark and correct answers before copying them down on paper. Buxton noted as an aside the irony that we’re now trying to reintroduce slates into the classroom in the form of tablet PCs, but his main point was the fact that there’re very few differences between a slate and a blackboard: a blackboard is just a slate that’s been made an order of magnitude larger and hung on the wall. A technologist looking for novel innovation might overlook such a “minor” modification, and yet that slight change made all the difference.

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UK passport RFID “gotcha”?

The Guardian has a “gotcha” piece about how easy it is to crack the security on the RFID tags in the new UK passports. Bruce Schneier and Bruce Sterling have both commented favorably on the piece, but personally I don’t see what all the fuss is about. The RFID chip contains a cryptographically signed digital copy of the main page of your passport, including a digital copy of your photograph. The idea is that this way you can’t modify the name or paste your own photo into a stolen passport because the digital data won’t match, and you can’t modify the digital data because it has to be signed by the issuing country. After people expressed concerns that someone nearby could eavesdrop on the conversation between the passport and the RFID reader, they decided to encrypt the passport using your passport number, expiration date and date of birth, which is encoded using a barcode (or maybe a magnetic stripe). That way the customs official swiping your card can read the photo but someone eavesdropping on the RFID conversation can’t.

There’s only one concern the story mentions that makes even vague sense to me:

This means that each time you hand over your passport at, say, a hotel reception or car-rental office abroad to be “photocopied”, it could be cloned with equipment like ours. This could have been done with an old passport, but since the new biometric passports are supposed to be secure they are more likely to be accepted without question at borders.

Certainly people trust computers a little too much, but this sounds like something proper training would solve. The idea that the RFID chip can be cloned doesn’t seem like that difficult a concept to teach.

So what am I missing here?

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Rush Limbaugh on last week’s election

Rush Limbaugh, on the results of last week’s election:

The way I feel is this: I feel liberated, and I’m gonna – I’m just gonna tell you as plainly as I can why. I no longer am going to have to carry the water for people who I don’t think deserve having their water carried.

Now, you might say, well, why have you been doing it? Because the stakes are high. Even though the Republican Party let us down, to me, they represent a far better future for my beliefs, and therefore the country’s, than the Democrat [sic] Party does, and liberalism. And I believe my side is worthy of victory. And I believe it’s much easier to reform things that are going wrong on my side from a position of strength.

Now, I’m liberated from having to constantly come in here every day and try to buck up a bunch of people who don’t deserve it.

It’s not often I complement Limbaugh, but good on him (and about damn time). I think Limbaugh is a buffoon, but I also think the country is a lot better off with a cacophony of buffoons all speaking their minds than a bunch of ditto-head water-bearers all marching in lock-step. It’s something citizens of all political leanings need to keep in mind.

(Limbaugh quote via On The Media… in case you were wondering whether my radio taste had changed recently.)

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EFF Patent Busting

EFF has a call out for prior art to help bust two broad patents:

The Patent Busting Project fights back against bogus patents by filing requests for reexamination against the worst offenders. We’ve successfully pushed the Patent and Trademark Office to reexamine patents held by Clear Channel and, and now we need your help to bust a few more.

A company called NeoMedia has a patent on reading an ‘index’ (e.g, a bar code) off a product, matching it with information in a database, and then connecting to a remote computer (e.g., a website). In other words, NeoMedia claims to have invented the basic concept of any technology that could, say, scan a product on a supermarket shelf and then connect you to a price-comparison website. To bust this overly broad patent, we need to find prior art that describes a product made before 1995 that might be something like a UPC scanner, but which also connects the user to a remote computer or database. Take a look at the description and please forward it to anyone you know who might have special knowledge in this area. You can submit your tips here.

Also in our sights is a patent on personalized subdomains from Ideaflood. For example, a student named Alice might have personalized URL ‘’ that redirects to a personal directory at ‘’ Ideaflood says that it has a patent on a key mechanism that makes this possible. We need prior art that describes such a method being used before 1999, specifically using DNS wildcards, html frames, and virtual hosting. Prior art systems might have existed in foreign ISPs, universities, or other ISPs with web-hosting services. You can submit tips here.

I’ll betcha there’s prior art in the augmented reality field that reads on the first patent, either from Steve Feiner’s group at Columbia or maybe even the stuff we were playing with at the Media Lab. (I’ll go rooting around once I meet a different deadline I’m spending my evenings on…)

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Bill Buxton prediction on cheap ubiquitous displays

Bill Buxton gave the closing plenary talk at this year’s Computer Supported Collaborative Work conference this year, and bet everyone a drink that in seven years:

…it will be as cheap to buy, per square foot, to buy 100 dpi full-color displays as the same square-footage of whiteboard today. In 7 years, displays with on the order of 20 times more pixels than are on that screen right now [pointing to a 15′ x 15′ projector screen] but the same size will be cheaper than that screen is right now without the projector. It’s going to be about one to ten dollars a square foot for a 100 dpi full-color display that’s 6mm thick. And the only question is which of the six or so competing technologies is gonna get there first.

And now, what does that mean? That’s a technological affordance, it doesn’t mean anything except that it’s interesting because I’m a technologist. But as a designer, as a citizen, as a father, I care because now I can’t think about watches, mobile phones, or any of these other devices out of the context of these portable wearable types of things moving around in space collectively and relating to those things there on the wall. What’s that mean for education, what’s it mean for business, how do we conduct our meetings? And that is CSCW, or a different branch of it. And the amount of effort put to that, to me, is still really low.

Personally I think he’s being a little optimistic the time scale, but not by a lot, and he’s certainly right that researchers need to be thinking about how that changes the environments in which we work and live. And he has a little built-in slack in his prediction: CSCW only meets every other year, so even if he’s wrong we won’t be able to collect on our drink until 2014.

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