Thursday, April 30, 2009

Long-distance sex with lights

Stuck in a long-distance relationship with no "action?" Well, Scottish researchers have got something for you: introducing Mutsugoto, or the ability to get it on by drawing light on each others' bodies.

Scotland's Distance Lab is looking to test out Mutsugoto, which involves installing an electronic light system in the bedroom, this summer. It's a tough concept to explain, so here it straight from the Mutsugoto website:

A custom computer vision and projection system allows users to draw on each other's bodies while lying in bed. Drawings are transmitted "live" between the two beds, enabling a different kind of synchronous communication that leverages the emotional quality of physical gesture.

You really have to see this in action in order to actually get it, as it's kind of a spacey concept. Here's a video:

Mutsugoto from Distance Lab on Vimeo.

In other words, the system tries to introduce a more complex feeling of "touch" to long-distance communications than is normally found with phone sex (i.e. wanking it). It's an interesting idea, but I have a feeling many people are going to find it a little too "touchy-feely" for their liking.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The book drops in March

I swung by Penguin Canada yesterday to give a brief presentation on my book to the sales team. These would be the folks who will end up trying to sell it to Chapters, Indigo and other bookstores across the country. They were a nice group of people who come from all walks of life: some worked in bookstores, some came from marketing backgrounds while others were even horse jockeys!

In any event, I picked up Penguin's new Fall 2009/Spring 2010 catalog and it's got some publishing details on my book: the hardcover is scheduled for publication in March 2010 and will go for $32 (subject to change), so start saving up that cash! Here's the catalog blurb (which I did not write):

In this surprising history of technology, Peter Nowak argues that most of the innovations that make modern life modern can be directly traced to one of three aspects of human activity - war, porn and the fast food industry. Following developments in technology from the 1940s to the present, Nowak reveals the links between Barbie and U.S. missile systems, how the porn industry killed Betamax, and why Niue, Polynesia, is the phone-sex capital of the world. He exposes the unexpected origins of many common household items, such as cellphones, microwave ovens and plastic packaging, and raises the disturbing question of where we would be, technologically speaking, without our basest desires.

A broad-interest technology book revealing the surprising roots of the technology around us. For fans of Michael Moore, Eric Schlosser and Thomas Friedman, a book full of who-would-have-thought-it facts. No previous book has considered the combined impact of these three industries.

Sounds cool, huh? I better get to writing the damn thing...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dogs: a robot's best friend

Cleaning toilets, doing dishes, mopping floors - all are tasks many people wish could be done by robots. Well, add dog training to that list. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same people who brought you the internet and stealth aircraft, are now looking into automated ways of training Fido. Apparently, it's too tedious a job for humans. According to DARPA's proposal:

The development of an automated mammalian training device would significantly reduce the need for human involvement. In addition, it may enable the ability for remote on-site training in potentially limited access areas. This device would also have the ability to better and more rapidly train an animal through the collection of performance metrics that indicate subject intelligence, capability, and progress.

But will the dog develop the same bond with its robotic trainer? What happens if, as Wired puts it, the dog pees on its trainer?

Some animal lovers will be shocked to learn that the military is using dogs in the first place. Rest assured, poochies have had a long service history, as this site illustrates. Be sure to click on that link if only to hear the tribute song playing in the background - it had me crying tears of laughter.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Porn business in decline

Just how much money does the porn business make? According to a recent report from the E-Commerce Journal, about $10 billion a year, which is more than the NFL, MLB and NBA combined. Here's the catch though: the industry is, by just about all reports, in decline.

First up, some more amazing stats. According to the Journal's report, about 25% of searches are porn-related. Up to a third of all websites are estimated to be porn, and they get up to 68 million hits a day. That means that every second, 28,000 people are watching some sort of porn online.

Here's a recent nifty video from Good Magazine that spells out some of the numbers in a very interesting way:

Now the downside. The Journal report pegs online porn revenue at about $2 billion a year, which is about the same level it was earlier this decade. According to this report, DVD sales are down about 15%. The culprit is the same as it is for the music industry and Hollywood: piracy. A crop of "Tube" sites, like YouPorn, RedTube and Tube8 are hosting tons of copyrighted content for free. At first it was stuff from big U.S. producers like Vivid and Hustler, but after legal action from those folks the 'Tube sites have shifted to hosting more foreign stuff. Nevertheless, for people looking for a wank, porn is porn, and several 'Tube sites consequently rank within the top 100 trafficked websites (YouPorn is just behind Twitter, believe it or not). No wonder Playboy is in danger of being de-listed from the New York Stock Exchange.

What are the big porn companies doing about it? There's a range of answers, all of which I'm covering in my book. For a good overview of the situation in the meantime, check out this piece in Conde Nast's Portfolio magazine.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Should we be creating super cows?

In a relatively big announcement, scientists on Thursday said they have fully decoded the cow's genome, which is going to open up a whole barrel of questions. According to the National Geographic story, having the entire genetic map will allow for selective breeding - scientists will be able to breed out diseases, match genetically suitable males and females to produce hardier calves and create cows that require less feed. The potential advantages of all of this are numerous - cheaper cows, stronger cows, healthier cows.

But the National Geographic story doesn't even touch on the ethical issues, which, when you're dealing with genetically-modified anything, are always there. Substitute the word "human" for "cow" everywhere it appears in that paragraph above and there would obviously be very serious problems. It's an issue that is likely to go beyond just animal rights activists.

Europe has been particularly hard on genetically modified foods of any kind. It was almost fully ten years ago that McDonald's announced it would no longer use genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the United Kingdom after coming under pressure from consumers there. I'm just beginning my research on GMOs so I'll have plenty more to say on the topic in the upcoming weeks.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Second Life ghetto-izing porn

An interesting news tidbit today about Second Life, the virtual world, creating a virtual ghetto for adult content. Parent company Linden Labs will apparently zone off a standalone "continent" inside the world where all adult content will be located later this year. As CNET reports, members who want to purchase land there, or who want to visit, will have to go through an age verification process. The move is part of Linden Labs' attempt to clean up Second Life's image.

The only thing I want to know is: Second Life is still around? Really? Who the hell goes there anymore? We commented on the virtual world's fizzle in our 2008 year-end review over at the CBC, and I'm honestly surprised anyone still cares about it. According to the CNET report, Second Life is actually profitable - apparently because of the large number of transactions that take place there - but regardless it's a good example of how the media over-hypes new social media tools. The same thing happened with MySpace/Facebook and the same thing is happening right now with Twitter. None of these ventures have yet to show how they're going to make money over the long term, so it's a good idea to take the hype with a grain of salt. There's a good chance that a year or two from now, we'll have moved on from Twitter to the next thing.

Besides, everybody knows that if you want to make money on the internet, you've got to go with porn. Three guesses as to what the most profitable part of the new Second Life will be.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The similarities between porn and smoking

Stanford University's Hoover Institution think tank has yet another interesting essay dealing with sex - or, more to the point, porn. Written by Mary Eberstadt, the same person who authored the "" essay I pointed to a few weeks ago, the new piece points out the similarities between porn and tobacco.

Essentially, Eberstadt's argument is that porn is as acceptable now as smoking was in the sixties. But, smoking is almost universally hated now - a fate that could await porn in the future. Or, as the author argues:

The psychologists and other experts on whom Big Porn depends today may yet live to see their efforts reviled by a future public — just as many people who once aided the tobacco industry, whether paid or not, are viewed unfavorably through contemporary eyes. Such a turnaround consensus against internet pornography may seem a long way off in 2009. But then again, so did our own “neo-puritanical” anti-tobacco world to the smokers of 1964.

The porn industry, through its Free Speech Coalition lobby arm, today uses many of the same arguments used by Big Tobacco over the past few decades, such as there are no direct links between product and harm, the product is not addictive and consumption of it is a matter of personal choice and freedom. Both industries have also targeted children for marketing despite claims to the contrary, and both have sought to improve their images through charitable contributions.

I was - and still am - pretty skeptical of the essay, especially since the Hoover Institution is a conservative think tank with ties to George W. Bush's administration (Condoleezza Rice just returned as a fellow), but it is definitely a fascinating read if you've got the time, since it is long. One thing the author glosses over, however, are the BIG differences between the two industries. First and certainly not least is the fact that smoking is a relatively new phenomenon while pornography has been around since prehistoric man painted the first nude woman on the wall of his cave. Porn is the outgrowth of a basic and natural human need - the need to have sex - while, to put it simply, there's just nothing natural about smoking anything.

Eberstadt's thesis will probably never come to pass because it's a lot easier to demonize a man-made activity with almost no redeeming social qualities - not to mention the fact that it can actually kill you - than it will be for an activity that generally has a "happy ending."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A robot theme park. Seriously.

This year's Robobusiness conference was hella cool (are the kids still saying "hella?" Did they ever?). I did an interview with Radio New Zealand's This Way Up program from the show, talking about the various goings-on there. Here's a link to the show's page and a direct link to the interview if you'd like to listen.

One of the highlights was learning about South Korea's plans for Robotland, a theme park devoted to, you guessed it, robots. The park is costing governments and private investors $700 million and is scheduled to open in 2012, depending of course on how this whole economic crisis goes. The official site is in Korean but you can get an idea of what it's going to look like from the pictures (more info in English can be found here). The point of the park is to spur investment in robots, a market South Korea is going after fiercely. The government wants to grow the country's share of the global robot market from the current 8% to 20% by 2018. To do so, it has actually enacted a law that requires businesses to consider robots when making budgetary decisions. Given that they're already way ahead of North America in terms of broadband and mobile technology, I'm wondering if we all might be bowing down to our South Korean masters and eating kimchi some day soon?

In other news, check out this short video I put together showing off a pair of very different robots at the show. The first is Foster-Miller's MAARS explosive disposal robot (and weapons platform), while the other is Ugobe's pet dinosaur, the Pleo. You couldn't find two more dissimilar robots.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Oscars of tech journalism

Good news: For the second year in a row, I've been nominated for the Excellence in Science and Technology Reporting award by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance. For some strange reason, however, it looks like the awards are decided by popular vote, which you can cast by going here (polling is open till this Friday, April 24).

I'm not one to beg for votes, but I can offer up a few of my better stories from the past year here. If you enjoy what you read, by all means cast your vote in my favour. If you don't... well, at least don't vote for the other guys!

My proudest project from the past year was "Disconnected," which was a series we did at that took a look at how Canadians are fed up with their telecommunications providers. I spearheaded the project because it's a subject I'm passionate about, and I ended up putting together many of the stories and features, including parts one and two of the main story. I also had a good deal of fun crunching the numbers and putting them into neat timelines and graphs, as well as interviewing the politicians (Jim Prentice, Scott Brison and Charlie Angus).

One of my other favourite projects was our mini-series on the history of video games, kicked off with my story on William Higinbotham, the creator of the very first game, Tennis for Two. I like to think I also did a good job covering the whole net neutrality situation, even if it did require getting up at 4 a.m. to ride the buses to Ottawa for the protest last May. Then of course there was my catching of CNN lying about the "holograms" it used during Obama's election. That story got picked up everywhere, including here and here and here...

I'll be back tomorrow with something decidedly less self-promotional.

Friday, April 17, 2009

It's time to replace teen labor with robots

Ah, Domino's. Not only are they delivering pizza, they're also delivering quality material for my book. In a week when I've been focusing on robots and how they might break out into the mainstream, a couple of dim-witted employees at the pizza chain had to go and post this video to YouTube:

If you haven't heard, the video of these employees pretending to stick boogers into sandwiches went viral and caused quite the PR headache for the company. The media went whole-hog on it and the president of the company even took to YouTube with a .

This reminds me of a story I did last year on fast food technology that looked at HyperActive Technologies, a company that makes a robotic order-taking system for U.S. chicken chain Zaxby's. Company founder R. Craig Coulter's remarks that the fast food industry was a laggard when it came to automation were pretty much proven with the counter from a McDonald's executive, who said the secret to good service was making sure you were properly staffed at all times.

The big problem with McDonald's view, however, is that the teenage, minimum-wage employees manning its restaurants are just like those at Domino's, and therefore liable to go sticking boogers into burgers just for kicks. Maybe the huge PR damage such episodes cause might finally push some of these fast-food chains to invest in safe robots to replace the risky teenagers. It's not like their tasks aren't largely automated and repetitive anyway.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Do video games need more naked dudes?

Every once in a while, a video game comes along and dusts off the old debate of just what should be allowable in games. The latest in this proud tradition is The Godfather 2, based on the classic gangster movie, although this one seems to have stirred the pot in a different way.

Not too long ago, the folks at Bioware in Edmonton really created a ruckus with their sci-fi role-playing game Mass Effect. If you'll recall, Fox News got uppity about the sex scenes that players could end up in, including a lesbian encounter. Gasp! Shock! If you don't remember, here's a video of the situation. Gotta love how they compared it to "Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas:"

Now The Godfather 2, which features some naked women, is raising questions about whether video game nudity is sexist. I have to admit, I've never heard that one before. But with an increasing number of girls and women playing video games, it is a valid question. Is it time for more schlongs in video games?

UPDATE: I just watched that Fox video again, just for kicks. I'm still stunned by the group of absolute tools they assembled to discuss Mass Effect (with the exception, of course, of the guy from Spike, who's the only sane person in it).

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Driving robots like a video game

As promised, here's a report from my visit yesterday to iRobot's headquarters in Bedford, just north of Boston. I sat down and talked with vice-admiral Joe Dyer, president of the company's government and industry division, about the role of robots in war. We discussed a number of topics, such as the potential of robots to further disconnect soldiers psychologically from the wars they're fighting to the likelihood of robot-on-robot wars. I also asked him what he thought of President Obama's change of direction in military funding. Obama's administration recently announced it was doing away with "Cold War" thinking and instead approaching military funding more realistically. Here's what Dyer said:

He's trying to take resources from areas where we have clear dominance - we control the skies and we control the seas - and move them to where we're challenged, which is irregular warfare and asymmetrical attack. Robots are an important part of being able to meet that irregular warfare challenge. You can already see that with the IED [improvised explosive device] threat. It is going to shift resources in an area that is advantageous to the robotics industry and iRobot in particular. Why iRobot in particular? Because we are the lead in introducing robots to infantry.

After the interview, I played around with one of iRobot's Packbots, which are being used by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to find IEDs. The Packbot's various functions are directed via a Playstation controller, which made it unbelievably easy to manipulate. I was driving around and lifting water bottles in no time. Here's a video demo with Jeff Ostaszewski, one of iRobot's marketing guys, doing the driving:

I'll hopefully have some more from the RoboBusiness conference tomorrow, or Friday at the latest. Be sure to check me out on - I'll be tweeting if there's wi-fi at the show.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

We're off to see some robots...

I'm heading to the RoboBusiness conference in Boston this week so I'll hopefully do some updates from the show. I'll also be visiting the headquarters of iRobot, the maker of the PackBot bomb sniffer and Roomba robot vacuum cleaner. I'll post some video from my visit as soon as I get a chance.

In the meantime, check out some of my coverage from last year's RoboBusiness conference in Pittsburgh. Here's a Q&A with iRobot CEO Colin Angle, where he talks about the balancing act his company is performing by serving both military and consumer markets. Here's a Q&A with Kevin Fahey, program executive officer for U.S. Ground Combat Systems, and Col. James Braden, project manager of the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office, where they discuss the necessity and benefits of sending robots to war. Lastly, here's coverage of Fahey's keynote address, where he praised robot makers for their work. By the way, if robots are your thing, the CBC has a nice feature page on 'em.

If there's wi-fi at the conference, you can be sure I'll be posting the real-time happenings on my on Wednesday.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Tera Patrick on tech freedom

As promised earlier this week, today we've got a snippet of my recent interview with Tera Patrick, who - like Jenna Jameson - is one of the few porn stars that non-aficionados can identify by name. That's because, like Jameson, she's taken major steps toward mainstream crossover. She's been a regular on the Howard Stern show, had a guest spot in Will Ferrell's Blades of Glory, and will even be a downloadable character in the video game as of April 16. (How does she feel about it? "I’m really proud of that. I’m a hero," she said. "I get to kill people with weed wackers.") She's also the first porn star to have an iPhone app actually cleared by Apple, although it is a PG-rated slide game.

Patrick is perhaps most notable for striking out on her own in 2003. After deciding she was tired of being ripped off by the big porn producers, she started her own company Teravision with her husband, Biohazard bassist and Evan Seinfeld, who was also in on the interview (who could ever forget the photo shoot he did with Patrick and Skid Row Singer Sebastian Bach's wife on the Supergroup reality show?). Here's a short clip of Patrick telling me about exploitation in the business:

Patrick is possibly the best example of the liberating power of technology. Just as the internet allowed Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor to break free from what he felt was an exploitative music business by going out on his own, so too has it allowed porn stars like Patrick to bypass traditional distribution vehicles. Or, as Seinfeld told me:

If you’re independent, now is your time. You don’t need to go through a Vivid or a Wicked or a Hustler to get into the business. You can just open yourself a website and if you have something unique or good, you have the technology to get it out there and it’s the wild west. Have a good time.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The downside of eliminating nukes

It's interesting that President Barack Obama is looking to cut back on nuclear weapons. While that's certainly a good thing as far as global peace is concerned, the central thesis of my book is in fact that war - which includes nukes - has had positive side effects in the realm of technological spinoffs.

One of the places that will certainly be hit by Obama's nuke de-emphasis is Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which along with the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico, is responsible for overseeing the U.S. nuclear stockpile. I visited Livermore, which is just outside San Francisco, back in February and learned about all the nifty technologies developed there in the course of taking care of all those nuclear missiles. It is tricky, after all, to maintain those deadly weapons - not only do scientists have to make sure the nukes don't accidentally go off, they also need to be sure the missiles are in proper working order without actually seeing them in proper working order.

As such, Livermore scientists have developed a ton of technologies that have spun off into widespread mainstream use. Two of the more notable ones are a software program called Dyna 3D and a new proton-based cancer treatment. Dyna was originally developed as a simulation program to predict what physically happens to bombs when they actually hit their target, but has since been disseminated into virtually every industry that needs to conduct impact estimates. Car makers are the biggest users of it, since simulating car crashes with Dyna is a lot cheaper than replicating the real thing, but even beer manufacturers use it to predict problems with their cans.

Proton cancer therapy is still a few years from breaking out, but it has the potential to be huge. Current therapy uses x-rays to treat cancerous cells, but x-rays tend to be a little inaccurate and can actually penetrate further into the body than you want, which can of course be bad. Proton beams, on the other hand, can be modulated so that they quickly increase intensity as they get near the cancer, and then quickly drop off right after, which means no further penetration or resultant ill effects. The technology was developed to probe inside nuclear weapons and is primed to revolutionize cancer treatment, as this CNN report says:

While decreasing nukes is a good thing, it's too bad that Obama's move will also likely lead to a diminution in these sorts of spin-off technologies.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Food that's out of this world

I spent a few days in Houston last week visiting NASA, where I chatted with Dr. Michele Perchonok, the head food scientist for the space shuttle program. Not many people are aware of just how many mainstream technologies have come directly from the space program - from the anti-scratch coating on Ray Ban sunglasses to Super Soakers, a ton of NASA inventions have transferred over into consumer goods. The same holds true for foods - the space agency has perfected many processing and packaging methods, with one of the best being the "retort pouches" that are popping up in grocery stores.

These vacuum-sealed packages, made from a blend of metals and plastic, are superior to cans in several ways. First, the thinner pouch means the food inside doesn't need to be cooked for as long, which means it retains more of its natural flavour. Second, the pouches are also lighter than cans, so they don't cost as much to ship, which means the cost savings can theoretically be passed on to consumers. Not surprisingly, food producers are starting to latch onto these pouches - which were actually created by the Army back in the early 1980s - in a big way. I've noticed a lot of soups are starting to come in pouches, rather than cans.

During my visit, Dr. Perchonok served me up a typical astronaut meal: irradiated barbecue beef brisket and baked beans, freeze-dried cauliflower with cheese, freeze-dried mixed berries, flatbread, cookies and powdered pineapple drink. You'd think that with all of these foods designed to last upward of a year, they'd taste like crap, but that was far from the case. The beef brisket was especially tasty! Here's a video of my visit:

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mindful eating, mindless sex

The links between war and porn aren't hard to make. After all, the porn industry has been an early adopter of many military-made technologies - magnetic recording (which led to videotapes), lasers (which led to DVDs), and of course the internet. The story is the same with war and food - many of today's most common food-processing techniques, from canning to freeze-drying to irradiation - were created and perfected in order to feed soldiers. The link I've been having trouble making, however, is one between the technologies of porn and food. Aside from some lazy basement-dwelling slobs eating cheeseburgers with one hand and surfing porn online with the other (which would mean they'd be one hand short for their real purpose?!?), there just don't seem to be many connections between the two industries.

Until now. Mary Eberstadt, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, has written an amazing essay about how technology has affected public consumption of both food and porn. In the essay, titled "Is Food the New Sex," Eberstadt argues that there's been a role reversal in how people in the developed world view sex and food. On the one hand, people have become very picky about what they eat, eschewing highly processed foods in favour of those that are organic and locally grown. On the other, they're far more care free about who they have sex with.

In the fifties, Eberstadt says, people were taught to clean their plates because food was relatively scarce, while sex was something you only did when you were married. Now, it's the opposite - because technology has made food plentiful, people can be choosy. Breakthroughs in sex technology, such as the birth control pill and condoms, means that living together, having children out of wedlock or even watching porn together is perfectly acceptable.

It's a great if somewhat lengthy read, but I recommend checking it out if you have some time on your hands. Otherwise, you can always wait for my book - I'm sure Eberstadt's essay will find its way in there.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Stoya talks tech and sex

Last week was really busy. Besides heading down to Houston to eat NASA's space food, I also interviewed a pair of porn stars - one is a veritable legend in the business while the other is perhaps the industry's fastest rising star. I'll have snippets of both interviews up this week, starting today with Stoya, the Digital Playground contract star who won the Adult Video News award for "Best New Starlet" back in January. (And check back later this week for a clip of my interview with Tera Patrick.)

As I mentioned in a , Stoya has a reputation for being tech savvy - she blogs, Twitters, plays video games and depends on her BlackBerry - so she seemed like the perfect person with which to discuss the links between porn and technology. Interestingly, she doesn't consider herself any more technologically proficient than anyone her age (she's 22). In the audio slideshow below, she talks about her views on why adult companies have been so quick to embrace technology and the limitations they face, as well as the improbability of having sex while wearing 3D glasses.

One big contrast between Stoya and Tera Patrick that emerged in the interviews was their views on whether or not the porn industry was exploitative of women. Patrick, an industry veteran of 10 years, very much believes the business is dominated by men who rip off the women, which is why she started her own company in 2003. Stoya, on the other hand, takes a hard-line approach and says the porn business isn't more or less exploitative than any other industry, and that it's up to the individual to negotiate the best deal they can:

Any person hiring another person, regardless of industry or gender, wants to get the most work and the highest quality of work for the lowest price. That’s just business. Of course the company I work for tries to get as much out of me as they can without having to pay me extra. Meanwhile, I try to get fairly compensated for every single thing I do because that's business. That's capitalism and the Western world is built on capitalism.

Friday, April 3, 2009

DARPA is... regretting having that tuna sandwich for lunch

If you're like me, you use Facebook to stay up to date with all the important things your friends are doing - like what they had for lunch, or what their top five favourite movies of all time are. That's why I'm so excited about DARPA's on the social networking site.

DARPA, which stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is the U.S. Department of Defense's main agency for technological research, which was formed in 1958 just after Sputnik was launched. The U.S. was shocked when the Soviet Union beat it to space and never again wanted to be surprised technologically, hence DARPA. Since then, DARPA has doled out tons of basic research money to just about any and every technology that could be used in war, which has resulted in some lovely spinoffs, including the internet.

Now the agency has a Facebook page, where you can sign up as a "fan" (mind you, thanks the Facebook's ungodly new design, good luck finding the page again, short of doing an actual search). I wonder how long it'll take before DARPA starts sending out Vampire and Mafia Wars invitations.

Incidentally, it doesn't appear that DARPA is on Twitter yet, although that might turn out weird if it turns out that Google really is . After all, the guy who oversaw the building of the internet's precursor, the ARPAnet, for DARPA was , now a vice-president at Google.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Introducing the Apple iSoldier

The new issue of the Armed Forces Journal has an interesting commentary by Raphael Cohen, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute thinktank, on the problems with military technology. In his report, Cohen says too much is spent on technology that just ends up collecting dust because soldiers refuse to use it.

One example he cites is Panasonic's Toughbook, a durable laptop that generally sells for between $1,500 and $2,000. The Toughbook, as seen in the video below, is marketed to services like the police, fire departments and military, but troops in Iraq only ended up using it for word processing, Cohen says.

Cohen outlines 10 things to keep in mind when designing technology for soldiers, which includes such obvious fundamentals as "keep it simple" but also the need to make it "cool." He points to the iPod as an ideal:

If one is designing military technology for the iPod generation, it is important to consider what makes the iPod so successful: It has an intuitive display and is simple to operate, attractive, transportable, easy to maintain and capable of providing an array of services, but without overwhelming the user with information. And it's cool.

Maybe Apple should start getting into military contracting? Imagine shooting insurgents with your iGun, or blowing away terrorists with your iMissiles!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Why we need Frankenfoods

One of the goals of my book is to try and counter the widespread idea that food processing in general is a bad thing. Sure, processing foods so that they last longer wipes out many of their nutrients, and adding chemicals, salt and fat contributes to obesity and other health problems.

There is a bright side, though - while products such as Cheese Whiz or Spam may be cringe-worthy, without them we may not have been able to feed the 20th century's population explosion. That need is only going to increase, as University of Regina professor Sylvain Charlebois recently argued in an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, because of growing demand from the developing world. While there has been a general resistance to genetically modified foods, it's now time to rethink that attitude, he argued:

A new deal is slowly emerging, one that expands our notion of “us” to include the entire human race. As a result, genetically engineered foods must be allowed to develop so our globalized economy can flourish.

Some of the new food technologies are actually good for us. I recently interviewed Dr. Patrick Dunne at Natick Labs in Massachusetts, where all of the U.S. Army's food is designed, and he told me about a nifty new high-pressure water process that's being used by food companies, including Spam maker Hormel. The food is packed into vacuum pouches and then quickly cooked in a high-pressure water drum, which has a two-fold advantage over older methods such as steam cooking: a) The cooking process only takes a few minutes as opposed to more than an hour, which means the food is cooked less and thus retains more of its natural taste, and b) it consequently requires fewer additives to make it stable. Hormel calls it Truetaste technology, and it's behind the company's Natural Choice no-preservatives line.

Who knew food technology would eventually go full circle, from making crappy, chemical-laden foods to stuff that lasts longer naturally?
Newer Posts Older Posts Home