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How Lord Sugar taught me to hack stuff

This piece was originally published on a now-defunct website for general audiences. It now lives on here in vaguely inappropriate perpetuity

My first computer was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, most likely bought at Dixons in Worthing, England, circa 1986. But that's not the one I'd like to talk about, because it was defective and went right back to the store.

Dad, convinced by Clive Sinclair's legendary quality control that you get what you pay for, opted for the expensive Amstrad CPC over a replacement or a Commodore 64. Together, these three machines were the ruling triumvirate of 8-bit home computing in Thatcher's Britain. The Amstrad wasn't much different to the Commodore -- brighter graphics, tinnier sound -- but came with a built-in tape deck, a crisp color monitor, and a decent warranty.

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Luxury computers

As its qualities are determined by the cutting edge of engineering rather than fashion or component cost, technology defines a competing system of value to traditional luxury. That hasn't stopped Bentley aiming for the old-school appeal with its curious clutch-style $20,000 laptop. Though about as powerful as a late-1990s toilet seat iBook, it even scooped the prestigious Microsoft Fashion PC Award.

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Science Book Club: National Geographic's The Big Idea

I have a weird relationship with coffee-table books. In general, I kind of think of them as clutter—like a particularly heavy and ungainly pile of junk mail that you can't just throw away.

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Steve Jobs bio out early for downloads; "60 Minutes" devotes entire episode to book

As every blog and news site everywhere has already reported (including Boing Boing), the definitive biography of the late Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, is out today.

Actually, it's out today in paper, but was released yesterday for download via Amazon and iTunes. I'm willing to bet it breaks some sort of download sales record.

Last night's edition of the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes was devoted entirely, 100%, to stories on Jobs and his products.

As Mike Godwin noted on Twitter, Steve Kroft asks during the segment how Jobs, "who dropped LSD and marijuana," goes off to India and returns to become a businessman. LOL @ "dropping marijuana." The show sure does know their demo. At least they didn't say he smoked acid.

Snarking aside, the 60 Minutes pieces are worth watching. Here's part 1, here's part 2, and here's 3 (!), on iPad apps for autism. In other news this week, Obama says we're bringing troops home from Iraq, and Qaddafi's dead.

Related: Dan Lyons, former Fake Steve Jobs, on the backlash.

The Steve Jobs biography.

Walter Isaacson's definitive biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is out Monday.

All week long, excerpts have been leaking out, with little snippets of the late Apple CEO's reported thoughts on alternative medicine, Android, Bill Gates, being strategically mean to people, Obama, what apps Obama's staffers had on their iPads, cancer, teachers' unions and labor rights, Issey Miyake turtlenecks, the adoptive parents he loved and rebelled against, and the biological parents who gave him up for adoption (whom he is said to have referred to as "sperm and egg donors").

The first real review, by Janet Maslin in the New York Times, is out today.

You can read all 630 pages of the book for yourself soon. [Amazon].

Dance your Ph.D. thesis: Teaching a robot to appreciate beats

Every year, intrepid Ph.D. students face off in a high-stakes competition for honor, glory, and the intermingling of science and art. The goal: Dance your Ph.D. thesis. I showed you the finalists last year. This year, Science magazine has posted all 53 entries online, before the finalists are chosen. I'll confess, I've not yet watched them all. So I can't say this is my favorite, but it is well-done and did immediately catch my attention.

"Human-Based Percussion and Self-Similarity Detection in Electroacoustic Music" is, basically, researcher J. Anderson Mills' attempt to teach a computer to hear percussion sounds the way a human does. In the video, Shiny Robot learns how to dance. You can read a full description of how the various parts of this dance tie into Mills' research at the video site:

The dissertation research began with a two-choice, forced-interval experiment in which 29 humans were asked to rate isolated sounds from most to least percussive. The sound characteristic of rise time was found to be the most correlated with percussion of the characteristics tested. The experiment is represented in the dance by the first two interactions between Alain and Shiny, during which Shiny expresses his inability to correctly choose the stronger percussion sound.

... The final stage of the dissertation research was to use the detection algorithm with real-world music to discover self-similarity in the percussion patterns. By using auto-correlation analysis, the detection algorithm can be used to time the repetition and near repetition in music percussion. Shiny demonstrates the self-similarity of the music by several final repetitve dance moves, repeating appropriately at the time scale of beats, measures, and phrases.

Video Link

Via Keith Cowing

Awesome mentor program for Toronto high schoolers

This year, six Toronto-area high school students will get to learn supercomputing from researchers at The University of Toronto. If you'd like to be one of them, check out the application materials. Deadline is October 21. (Via Jonathan Dursi)

How tide predicting, analog computers won World War II

Without Lord Kelvin, there would have been no D-Day.

There's some very cool science history in the September issue of Physics Today, centering around a collection of analog computers, developed in the 19th century to predict tides. This was a job that human mathematicians could do, but the computing machines did the job faster and were less prone to small errors that had big, real-world implications. David Kaplan, an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee physics department, sent the links over. He says that these machines ended up being crucial and are a big, in-your-face reminder of the complications of living in a world without calculators:

"... it was particularly important during WWII in order to properly plan beach landings, but even without the war part I found it fascinating. We take this so for granted now, that we can crank out sin() and cos() values instantly, but that was not always the case."

We're talking about predictions a bit more precise than simply saying, "the water is low" or "the water is high." Physics Today explains why the behavior of tides was so important at D-Day and why the tide calculators were so important to Allied success.

As an Allied cross-channel invasion loomed in 1944, Rommel, convinced that it would come at high tide, installed millions of steel, cement, and wooden obstacles on the possible invasion beaches, positioned so they would be under water by midtide.

The Allies would certainly have liked to land at high tide, as Rommel expected, so their troops would have less beach to cross under fire. But the underwater obstacles changed that. The Allied planners now decided that initial landings must be soon after low tide so that demolition teams could blow up enough obstacles to open corridors through which the following landing craft could navigate to the beach. The tide also had to be rising, because the landing craft had to unload troops and then depart without danger of being stranded by a receding tide.

There were also nontidal constraints. For secrecy, Allied forces had to cross the English Channel in darkness. But naval artillery needed about an hour of daylight to bombard the coast before the landings. Therefore, low tide had to coincide with first light, with the landings to begin one hour after. Airborne drops had to take place the night before, because the paratroopers had to land in darkness. But they also needed to see their targets, so there had to be a late-rising Moon. Only three days in June 1944 met all those requirements for “D-Day,” the invasion date: 5, 6, and 7 June.

You can read more about tide predicting machines on Wikipedia, and try out a Java simulation of Lord Kelvin's tide predicting machine at the American Mathematical Society website.

Hulking computing engines of Toronto's yesteryear

Blogto's Derek Flack went spelunking in the Toronto Archives for photos of old computers in situ, from the days when installing a monsterscale computing engine was cause for bringing in the photographer for a bit of posterity. I remember my dad taking me to some computer rooms in this era, though his facial hair was far more glorious than this gentleman's.
As I've mentioned before, one of the best parts of digging around the Toronto Archives is the stuff you find that you were never looking for. I'd guess that at least a third of the ideas I've had for historical posts about the city have come via some serendipitous discovery or another. Today's installment is certainly fits this bill.

When I was putting together a post about what banks used to look like in Toronto, I happened to stumble upon some spectacular, Kubrick-esque shots of an unidentified computer room that got me wondering if there were any more like them in the City's digitized collection. As it turns out, there are — though not as many as I'd like.

Vintage computers and technology in Toronto (via Super Punch)

You Sometimes Have To Be Open

You Sometimes Have To Be Open by Marek Tomasik.jpeg Inside a Polish castle, Marek Tomasik built this chamber out of wood and old computer parts. You Sometimes Have To Be Open [via Laughing Squid]

Great computers for less than £100

Andrew Orlowski offers five amazing computers for under £100. I love that Psion 3MX, but easier to find in the U.S. might be a HP Jornada or something similar by Sharp. [The Register]

Happy 30th Birthday, ZX81!

zx81.jpg Photo: Shutterstock.

Byte This

bytethis.jpg This splendid postcard is yours for just $2.50 at Etsy.

Is your insomnia the result of your computer screen? (And what to do about it if it is)

I've been using f.lux (cross-platform, free) after reading about it on Seth Robert's blog (in his post titled "A Clue About How To Sleep Better").

Here's more about f.lux from Book of Joe:

flux-screen.jpgIn yesterday's Washington Post Health section Greg Linch's reported on how the light from a computer or iPad screen may potentially disrupt the brain's melatonin production and cause insomnia.

He then described an interesting desktop application called f.lux, which "adjusts a computer screen's color throughout the day. During daylight hours, the screen's undertone is the familiar blue. As sundown approaches, it begins transitioning to a warm shade of red-orange. In the morning, it's cool blue again." "The software application, which launched in February 2009, works with Windows, Mac and Linux.

Is your insomnia the result of your computer screen?

My essential Mac applications, part 5

I recently bought a new iMac computer, and I installed about 30 different applications on the first day. They are applications I consider essential (or at least mighty desirable for my purposes). I've covered programs 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, and 16-20. Below, applications 21-25.

viewfinder-logo.jpg21. Viewfinder (OS X, £15) This is a pretty specialized application that I use to search through Flickr for Creative Commons licensed images that I can run on Boing Boing. I enter keywords (the example shown here is a search for "cigar box guitar") and Viewfinder returns all the Flickr images it can find that have the keywords in the tags, titles, or descriptions, and can be used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. I've been using the demo version for many months and it has all the functionality I require.

viewIt-logo.jpg22. ViewIt (OS X, $22) This is a super-fast image organizing and viewing utility. It's much faster than iPhoto or Preview, and offers thumbnail and full-screen viewing modes. I use it to go through my massive image folders that I've filled with the retro illustrations I've snorked off the Web over the last 15 years.

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My essential Mac applications, part 4

I recently bought a new iMac computer, and I installed about 30 different applications on the first day. They are applications I consider essential (or at least mighty desirable for my purposes). Last week I talked about programs 1-5, 6-10, and 11-15. Today, I'm discussing apps 16-20.

scrivener-logo.jpg 16. Scrivener (OS X, $45) I've used Scrivener to write my two most recent books (Made By Hand and Rule the Web), and I'm completely sold on it. First of all, Scrivener is a top-notch word processor especially made for long-form writing. For each book, I created a chapter outline, which I was able access from a column on the left. It's a simple matter to rearrange the order of chapters, and I did this frequently throughout the writing process of my books. The full-screen editing format is a wonderful distraction-free way for me to write.

Second, Scrivener offers excellent research collection and organization tools. I was able to keep all of my notes, audio interviews, videos, and webpages that I came across in an organized outline that was also accessible from the left column.

Once I was finished the manuscript I used Scrivener to export the text as a Microsoft Word document in the format required by my publisher. This is one powerful application.

My wife is currently using Scrivener write a young adult novel, and she uses Scrivener's research tools to keep track of the characters in the novel. She uses the corkboard view to arrange virtual index cards, each containing a character description and back story.

I haven't yet tried out some of new features the that Scrivener offers, such as synchronizing project text with mobile apps such as SimpleText (which sounds really cool).

switch-logo.jpg 17. Switch (OS X, free) After looking around for a utility to reliably convert sound files of various formats into MP3 files, I came across Switch. This simple utility has successfully taken every sound file format I've thrown at it, and produced MP3 files. (Yes, I know about ffmpegX but I don't like it as much as I like Switch. YMMV.)

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My essential Mac applications, part 3

I recently bought a new iMac computer, and I installed about 30 different applications on the first day. They are applications I consider essential (or at least mighty desirable for my purposes). On Wednesday I talked about programs 1-5, and on Thursday I covered programs 6-10. Today I'm describing programs 11-16. Next week I'll describe the other 15 applications.

easycrop.jpg11. EasyCrop (OS X, $11.95) David told me about this utility, which he uses to crop pictures before running them on Boing Boing. I downloaded the demo version and after using it for a few minutes I went ahead and bought it. Now when I need to crop and resize a photo, I drag it into the EasyCrop icon, tweak the rotation if necessary, specify the area I want to crop (I've set up a width and height constraint for the cropped images so that they are always the right size) give it a name, and then drag the live preview of the cropped image into an FTP droplet to upload to Boing Boing. That's it; mission accomplished.

ical-viewer.jpg12. TimeWorks (OS X, $9.99) TimeWorks used to be called iCal Viewer, but the developer had to change its name because it included "iCal," and I guess Apple got mad. In any case, TimeWorks displays my iCal data as colored boxes on my desktop that drift towards a vertical finish line (which is the current time). This is an intuitive way for me to get a time-based feel for what's coming up on my calendar. I can look at iCal viewer by pressing the F8 key, and I also have it set up as my screensaver. Clicking on one of the boxes brings up the iCal application and highlights the day on which the event takes place. (I'm still using the iCal Viewer version and I don't plan to upgrade to TimeWorks. I've been using it for years and I don't need anything from it that it doesn't already offer.)

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Minimalist wooden PC case

slipskiplevel12.jpg Jeffrey Stephenson's famous for his elaborate deco-esque PC cases. This time, he's gone for a more modernist vibe with the Level Twelve.
Level Twelve is a Teak and Birds Eye Maple minimalist-styled computer system with hidden vent ducting and a separate self-powered USB peripheral system ... The computer itself is located in the Birds Eye Maple box and is fully self-contained. It could be pulled out of the enclosure while it is operating.
Construction photos and a peek at the back are at his website. [Slipperyskip]

First delicate tendrils of the nascent IT industry

The original poster in the Vintage Ads LiveJournal group asks, "Just what would you practice on....a typewriter?"

Learn at home!

"A higher bandwidth than any internet connection that ever existed"

How much data--in terms of genetic information--does a human sperm carry and what is the rate of transfer? Can you properly compare a penis to an ethernet connection? The good citizens of Reddit attempt to convert "bits" to bits. Hilarity ensues. (Thanks, Marc Abrahams!)

Fresh Greens: Crazy Excessive Electronics Packaging, Dismembered Rare Tigers, Making Music with the Moon and More!

Each week we're bringing you some of our favorite posts from our friends over at TreeHugger. Enjoy!

Ultra Rare Tiger Dismembered at Zoo and Sold on Chinese Black Market
It's something you'd think would only happen in a movie. But one of only 400 of these rare tigers was literally taken apart at a zoo and sold off on the black market.

Inflatable Solar Panels Zip Together To Power Most Anything
This lightweight, inflatable solar panel concept brings renewable energy access to any building and without that pesky renovation.

First Gray Wolf Hunt in Decades Begins Today
Starting today, the gray wolf is about to be hunted for the first time in decades. Unless a judge steps in, hundreds are likely to be shot, starting in Idaho.

buBle is More than a Tent, Less than a House
Check out this awesome piece of design for a temporary home.

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Welcome to the e-wasteland

Susannah Breslin is a guestblogger on Boing Boing. She is a freelance journalist who blogs at Reverse Cowgirl and is at work on a novel set in the adult movie industry.


London-based photographer Sophie Gerrard has created a photo series called "E-wasteland," a graphic look at the toxic effects of electronic waste on India's land and its people.

Every year, Gerrard writes, 20 to 50 million tons of electronic waste are generated worldwide.

India has become one of the world's largest dumping grounds for e-waste. E-waste is highly toxic. It contains lead, cadmium, mercury, tin, gold, copper, PVC and brominated, chlorinated and phosphorus based flame retardants. Many of these heavy metals and contaminants are extremely harmful to humans as well as to animals and plants.

The Basel Convention, of which the UK and India are signatories, bans the transportation of hazardous or toxic waste from the developed world to developing countries.

This illegal toxic trade is, therefore, in direct violation.

E-wasteland: The growing problem of e-waste in India (via riley dog)