Friday, October 29, 2010

Depressed? There's an app for that

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, winter is just around the corner. Aside from freezing our butts off and inevitably having to dig our cars out from under mounds of snow, that also means a serious lack of sunshine and a resultant dip in our general friendliness. In more serious cases, we're into the beginning of Seasonal Affective Disorder season.

Fortunately, there's the U.S. military. The National Center for Telehealth and Technology (T2), which researches and deploys new technologies for psychological health on behalf of the Department of Defense, has a new app for Android phones designed to help.

The T2 Mood Tracker is "a mobile application that allows users to self-monitor, track and reference their emotional experience over a period of days, weeks and months using a visual analogue rating scale." The app can monitor six areas of brain and psychological issues: brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, stress, depression and general well being. It's intended for troops who have returned from combat and may be suffering brain injury or PTSD, but it's also available to the general public for free.

The app allows users to keep a sort of diary of their moods by logging general feelings through a graphical interface. The record can then be shared with a doctor or therapist to provide an accurate graph of the user's mood over a prescribed period of time. As the website states:

Doctors and therapists frequently begin an appointment by asking, 'So how have things been going since I saw you last?' With this app it’s easy to answer that question by sharing graphs of emotional experience since the previous appointment. No need to try to remember how you were feeling last week. It’s all there, and the data were collected in real time. In addition, some research suggests that self-monitoring in and of itself has a therapeutic value by keeping people focused on the issue they are monitoring.

It's a nifty app, but I think there's a more effective one currently out there. It's called Kayak, and it helps you book trips to warm, sunny places like the Dominican Republic!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Porn comes to Apple's Facetime

I'm not sure why, but I get a certain joy in pointing out Steve Jobs' hypocrisy. If you're a regular reader, you know I've taken the Apple CEO a number of times for taking a moral high road in claiming that his company's products are "free from porn," when in fact they are the best friends the adult industry could ask for.

The iPhone, of course, freed the mobile phone from the evil clutches of cell companies, bringing the entire existing web - with its multitude of porn sites - to the palm of every user. True, Apple's app store remains largely closed to adult entertainment companies, but they're finding ways around it. Many have jumped right into HTML5, the multimedia alternative to Adobe's Flash that is used by many mainstream websites and which doesn't work on Apple's mobile products.

Same goes for the iPad. While there was some early trepidation among porn producers, they got on board the iPad quickly and barreled even further into converting from Flash to HTML5.

Now, it's Facetime. Apple last week announced it was extending its video calling service, found initially on the iPhone 4 and newest iPods, to Mac computers. That means Mac users can now video call iPhone and iPod users. So far, iPhone and iPod owners can only use Facetime if they're on a Wi-Fi, but there's little reason to expect the iPhone won't soon be able to use its 3G cellular access to connect as well. The last piece of the puzzle is the iPad, which doesn't yet have a camera and is therefore incapable of doing Facetime. It's a poorly kept secret that the next iteration of the device will indeed have at least one camera, so it too will get the video-calling feature.

Naturally, the porn guys are getting in the game. A company called IP4Play is billing itself as the first to make commercial use of Facetime, not to mention video calling on Skype. Essentially, users sign up, pay a fee, and they get to video chat with nude models. Here's the site with some funny PG and X-rated commercials for the service (the page itself is safe to view at work).

The Cult of Mac website has a short interview with Travis Falstad, managing director of IP4Play, and he sums up the Apple situation nicely. When asked whether Jobs can keep Apple devices porn free, he says:

We certainly respect Steve Jobs’ decision to keep porn out of the app store but it would be a stretch to make Apple devices “porn free” unless he wanted to obstruct their access to porn on the internet. Millions of Mac users view porn daily on their Macs and we only think that number grows with the addition of FaceTime on the Mac in conjunction with the iP4Play experience.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Would you like fries with that wedding?

Hey, remember this summer put out by McDonald's that found the chain's restaurants were a popular date location? Well, it gets better. Much better.

Three McDonald's outlets in Hong Kong are now offering "McWeddings," or the chance to get married under the Golden Arches. According to a local McDonald's executive quoted by Reuters: "Traditional weddings use cherries for the newlyweds to eat together and kiss. We will have French fries for them to kiss... People said they'd dated here (McDonald's restaurants), or met here, and wanted to get married here ... We see this as a business chance."

Well, I guess that's not too surprising, aside from the fact that some people apparently met at McDonald's. How weird would that be? "Hey baby, come here often?" "Why yes I do, I just love what the chef does with the chicken nuggets."

Then again, given that people are willing to have and Lord of the Rings weddings, it's sort of inevitable that somebody would want to get hitched at McDonald's. The only question is: how long till KFC and the rest follow? Marriage is supposed to be the ultimate symbolization of two becoming one, which sounds very much like the thinking behind a recently introduced product. Let's cut to the chase: hey KFC, about a Double Down wedding?

The McWeddings also remind me of the restaurant here in Toronto with the idea of promoting sex in its bathrooms as a way to draw patrons in for Valentine's Day.

All of this is proof that food, sex and love are all very intimately intertwined.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The case against labeling GMOs

I've been boning back up on the world of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) lately, in preparation for my journey into the figurative belly of the beast next week. I did an interview with Venue magazine in Bristol last week regarding Sex, Bombs and Burgers, and we had a hearty chat about GMOs. I had actually forgotten that the UK is the seat of GMO opposition, what with Prince Charles leading the charge against them and all.

In that vein, I've been talking to some people involved with GMO production over the past couple of weeks. My chat with Dr. Adrian Dubock, one of the scientists overseeing the Golden Rice Project, went up on CBC about a week ago while my conversation with John Buchanan, director of R&D for AquaBounty - the company that's behind the genetically modified salmon currently under review by the FDA - was posted yesterday.

Both stories drew a good portion of ignorant comments from Luddites and dummies alike, but they also got some intelligent questions and discussions going, particularly the salmon story. In yesterday's Q&A, a number of readers said they had no issue with genetically modified fish, but felt they should be labelled as such so that "the market" could decide their fate.

On the surface of it, that's not a terrible suggestion. After all, if there really is nothing wrong with such fish, they should be able to stand on their own merits. Letting consumers vote with their wallets is ultimately the fundamental underpinning of living in a free-market, democratic country.

But realistically, there are significant problems with the idea, largely because people are easily manipulated and misled. Allowing the market to decide GMOs' fate is exactly what happened in Europe. Such foods there had to be labelled as such, and they sold poorly - not because there was anything wrong with them, but because people like Prince Charles raised hell about them. With no science backing him up, Charles actually had the audacity to proclaim that GMOs were a giant environmental disaster waiting to happen. The media, of course, lapped it up.

How is science supposed to fight that? Once your technology is tarred like that, there's no coming back, which is why GMO makers are so opposed to labeling their foods. Doing so puts an easy target on them for critics to fear-monger over.

The deeper problem though, really comes down to one question: why should producers be forced to label foods as containing GMOs? That's a completely arbitrary and unrealistic line to draw, especially if health authorities rule them to be safe. If GMOs are to be labelled, why not standard crops that are similarly created with the aid of technology? Almost all of the crops we've been eating for decades have been formulated by cross-germinating different strains and seeds - should bread be labelled for using alien strains of wheat? Should fruit be labelled for the ethylene gas used in the ripening process? The point is, it's hard to single out one single type of food technology for identification without looking awfully hypocritical.

But wait: isn't there something special about genetic engineering, and shouldn't it warrant special attention? Well, not really. I'm no scientist but Frankenstein fears aside, there really isn't much to worry about if you really step back and think about it from a logical perspective. As one reader of the salmon Q&A smartly asked:

Since splicing genes is only a matter of replacing proteins in one order with the same proteins in another, my question is, therefore: If you already know the chemical outcomes of both genetic sequences (and both are not regarded as harmful) where can the health problems come from?

In other words: if eating Fish A isn't harmful and eating Fish B isn't harmful, how can putting them together be harmful? Or, wouldn't eating a genetically modified fish be about as harmful as eating Fish A, then Fish B - or rather, not dangerous at all?

Just as with my gripes over Wi-Fi the , this is another situation that really gets my goat. GMOs are another technology where the fears have way overshadowed the potential benefits.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A brand new website

It seems like an eternity ago that I started my Sex, Bombs and Burgers blog, even though it's only been about a year and a half. My intention at first was to have an online presence where I could promote the book in advance of its launch by posting items related to it on a daily basis. I didn't know what to expect, but suspected I might eventually shut the blog down once the book had run its course. After all, how long can one continue posting daily without any real compensation, especially on such a specific topic? It's a lot of work.

But these things rarely turn out as you expect them to. In the first case, traffic to the blog has been growing strongly and steadily. In my first month, March 2009, I had about 500 visitors - now I'm averaging about 5,000 a month. That's not astounding traffic compared to bigger sites, but it's also not too shabby for a relatively new, independent blog. On the basis of that momentum alone, I have enough justification to keep it going.

Also, there's really no such thing as a book "running its course," like a movie or music album might. Sex, Bombs and Burgers saw its release in Canada, Australia and New Zealand back in March, and it's coming out next week in the United Kingdom and at some point soon in South Korea. The big U.S. release is still to come next year, plus there's the Canadian paperback version in March. Obviously, I have lots of reasons to keep writing about war, porn and fast food.

Moreover, though, I also have my upcoming 
freelance career to think about - only one week to go at the CBC! In this day and age, it seems pretty foolish to me for anyone who works for themselves to not have an online presence.

In that vein, although Google's Blogger service has served me well for a year and a half, I thought I would move onto something a little more robust. After weighing some options, I decided on Wordpress, which is similarly free and relatively easy to use, but also offers significantly more features than Blogger.

I've set up a brand new website,, which is live . The site has quite a bit more information on me, including a section with some of my previous work, as well as links to  and  appearances. It's not meant to be an ego shrine, but rather a full repository of stuff I can point editors to as I inevitably beg them for work. (I've freelanced before... it's not always glamourous!)

I'll be blogging as usual, and concurrently, on both the new site and until at least the beginning of December, at which point I'll be redirecting all traffic from the old site to the new. There shouldn't be any hiccups, but if you've got the old site bookmarked you may want to update to the new. It looks like all my archived posts imported okay to the new site, with the exception of some messed-up video links (which I'll be fixing).

And, as I mentioned before, I'll still be blogging about war, porn and fast food, but I'll be expanding my newfound freedom to writing about other stuff too. I hope to see you on the new site, and thanks for reading!

Friday, October 22, 2010

There's still lots of money in sex online

And they say that sex doesn't sell anymore on the internet? Tell that to the mysterious company that is paying $13 million for the domain name That's a huge outlay just for the name, so whoever is buying it must think there's still a ton of money to be made from sex online despite rampant piracy of porn.

The company that bought the domain, Clover Holdings, is registered in the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent, which means that it must be totally on the up and up (I say that with sarcasm). The domain name actually has a long and checkered history and was even the subject of .

To make a long story short, it was first registered by Gary Kremen, the same guy who started, in 1994. A rather shady fellow named Stephen Cohen managed to actually steal the domain from Kremen by lying to the registrar, which kicked off a monumental court battle that ended with Cohen fleeing to Mexico. Anyhow, the domain was eventually transferred to Escom LLC, a similarly mysterious company based in California. Escom went bankrupt and has now sold the domain to Clover, subject to court approval.

The sale would be one of the richest in internet history. PC World has a list of some of the other most expensive domains - interestingly, is near the top at $9.5 million.

In related news, a number of big adult companies have banded together in an effort to force tube and torrent tracking sites, such as Pirate Bay and Isohunt, to adopt filtering technology that would prevent their content from being pirated.

"While there is nothing new about adult companies gathering to discuss content piracy and what can be done about it, what happened at the CPR went beyond mere discussion," Pink Visual president Allison Vivas told adult news site Xbiz. "Attendees didn’t talk about what could be done; they talked about what they will do and made commitments to follow through on those things."

That's actually quite surprising. Porn companies like to present themselves as the progressive vanguard of new technology, so it's odd to see them adopting such an old-school attitude. Going after piracy has not worked at all for record labels and Hollywood, so there's no reason to expect the adult companies will have any better luck.

The solution for porn will be the same as it is for mainstream entertainment: the old models of doing business need to be discarded and replaced by innovative new ones, which can only be arrived at through experimentation, not lawsuits.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A bra with two... er... three purposes

Ever been caught in a chemical attack but you just happen to have left your gas mask at home? Well, a new invention - the eBra - has got you covered.

Ukrainian inventor Dr. Elena Bodnar won an Ig Noble Award last year for her bra-converted-into-a-gas-mask idea, and now she's come to market with it. (The Ig Noble Awards are an annual tribute to weird-but-practical inventions).

According to the eBra's website: "The goal of any emergency respiratory device is to achieve tight fixation and full coverage. Luckily, the wonderful design of the bra is already in the shape of a face mask and so with the addition of a few design features, the Emergency Bra enhances the efficiency of minimizing contaminated bypass air flow."

Theoretically, any old bra would probably do in a pinch - and you could use it for two people, if they got really close together. The Emergency Bra, which sells for $29.95, is specially created for such purposes, though:

The Emergency Bra is a garment that can be quickly and easily converted into two face masks without removing any clothes. It can reduce the health consequences of inhaling harmful airborne particles. Because the Emergency Bra masks can be securely fixed to the head, it frees a survivor’s hands to keep balance while running and removing objects on the way out of danger. In certain situations, by providing the wearer with a sense of security and protection, the Emergency Bra can reduce the chance of panic attack.

So there you have it ladies. No need to worry about those unexpected anthrax attacks anymore!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Talking TED: Technology good, media bad

I'm pleased and honoured to announce that I'll be a speaker at the TEDx conference at Ryerson University here in Toronto on Nov. 27.

What is TED? It stands for "technology, entertainment and design" and it's a conference that has been running every year in California since 1990. The event, run by the non-profit Sapling Foundation, is devoted to "ideas worth spreading" and has featured such luminaries as Bill Gates, Al Gore and Richard Branson. Over the years, TED events have spread around the world and those with an "x" designation are run independently, with the main organization's blessing.

The organizers of TEDxRyersonU, whom you on Twitter, recently shot a little intro video wherein I talk about the stuff that interests me and what I plan to discuss at the event:

To expand on that a bit, I'm planning to talk about how the media often blows concerns about technology out of proportion, which thereby feeds people's paranoia about it.

I had a front-row seat to a great example the other day. You may remember that earlier in the summer, some concerns emerged over Wi-Fi use at public schools here in Ontario. The issue was blown up by newspapers and TV, but ultimately (and thankfully) died a relatively quick death. Until, of course, it was resurrected this week. Some parents in small-town Ontario had, apparently, voted to shut off Wi-Fi at their local school.

I got the order from on high to write the story, and immediately cringed. No credible evidence that Wi-Fi is harmful to anyone's health has ever been found - indeed, health authorities dispelled the issue back in August - so why bother doing a story? If anything, more media coverage of the issue only encourages the people behind this campaign of misinformation and scare-mongering to keep doing it. But alas... that's how the media works. If it gets eyeballs, regardless of how stupid, it gets covered.

I ended up contributing to the problem and writing a story, but I took some comfort in correcting what other media were woefully misreporting. Pretty much everyone reported that the school had banned Wi-Fi (examples here, here and here), when in fact all that had happened is a group of parents had voted to do so. The decision to unplug the Wi-Fi or not lays with the school board, and they're not even close to voting on it.

The damage, though, has been done. The seeds of doubt about Wi-Fi have been sown over the past few months and it's reasonable to expect the public's trepidation will grow.

On the flip side, absolutely no one has reported the deep societal benefits of Wi-Fi, besides the simple cosmetic fact that it eliminates a large number of wires from our homes and businesses. Two quick ones sprung to mind yesterday while I was mulling the issue. One: when I'm over in the UK next month, I'll be using the Wi-Fi on my phone to check email and make Skype calls. If I used a standard cellular connection, I'd rack up a bill in the hundreds of dollars, which is then money I wouldn't have for other things. Two: again, while travelling, I almost always choose to stay in hotels and frequent cafes that offer free Wi-Fi. It's therefore an important competitive advantage and differentiator for businesses.

I wonder if anyone will ever write that story? I would, but I suspect it wouldn't get quite the same front-page treatment as a headline about parents running around scared.

Getting back to TED, the talks are intended as fora for ideas. Ultimately, the idea I want to share is that if there are any ill effects from our society's technological advancement, it's that it has created too much media, which we need to step back and get away from. We need to better recognize scare-mongering, especially when it comes to technology, and remember how to think logically and critically. The alternative will - and does - hold us back from further advancement and evolution.

There will, of course, be many more speakers announced for the event - I know of a few unofficially and I'm looking forward to hearing them. If you're interested in attending TEDxRyersonU, you'll have to fill out an application on the event's website. But even if you can't make it, I'm told the talks will be live-streamed. I'll post more info on that as it becomes available.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Taken down by the Double Down

Well, Double Down launch day came and went yesterday. Like many other Canadians (almost all of them male), I went to the local KFC to try and take one down. Ultimately, it probably took me down. I had a good time doing the on Twitter, which is one of the many bonuses I offer to people who follow me there.

I put together a little video of my experience. Check it out:

Monday, October 18, 2010

So long to stupid comments

The big day is here: it's Double Down launch day at Canadian KFCs! I've heard that a few restaurants actually started serving the sandwich over the weekend - I may have driven by one, in fact - but today it's official. I'll be trying one for lunch, assuming they're not sold out across the land, and will have a full report back here tomorrow.

On a related note, this past Saturday was actually World Food Day, the United Nations' annual effort at raising awareness of global hunger issues. Well KFC may not exactly figure into that too much, one significant issue that does is the idea of genetically modified organisms.

There's a whole chapter on GMOs in Sex, Bombs and Burgers and if you've read it, you know it's one technology I'm very supportive of. In researching the book, I spoke to a number of food scientists and humanitarians and all of them expressed dismay over the controversy that has surrounded GMOs for the better part of the past decade. From concerns over their environmental and health impacts to worries about companies patenting life forms or polluting plant and human genomes, critics have succeeded in putting up just about every roadblock conceivable. In the meantime, millions of people in developing nations have continued to go hungry and, in the worst cases, they've died because of it.

One of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of this young millennium is a case in point. Golden Rice, which I write about in the book, has been genetically enhanced to contain more beta-carotene, which the human body converts into Vitamin A. Deficiency of that particular vitamin is a major, major problem, causing blindness and killing an estimated one to two million people a year. The rice has, unfortunately, suffered from the "Frankenfood" hysteria surrounding GMOs and has not yet been approved for human consumption, despite making its debut a decade ago.

On Friday, I spoke with Dr. Adrian Dubock, a British food scientist who now lives in Switzerland and works on the Golden Rice Project, a group overseeing the technology's development. He shared some good news, which you can read in the interview I posted over on CBC, that the rice may finally be getting its stamp of approval in the next two years. Similar to the AquaBounty Salmon, which has been genetically engineered to grow faster, Golden Rice is coming close to delivering on the early promise of GMOs - that proper use of the technology can help solve one of the most serious problems in the world. As Dubock puts it:

If Golden Rice is successful, it will help the appreciation of the utility of the technology for wider society. That's the big sin of this controversy against GMOs — that this technology is extremely scaleable and it can help poor people in developing countries much more than a lot of other technologies in agriculture because, basically, it doesn't cost anything. It doesn't require rocket-science skills to do it either. It is very, very pertinent to developing countries.

That brings me to what I really wanted to discuss in today's post: reader comments. If there's one thing I won't miss about working at the CBC once I'm done at the end of the month, it's the largely inane and often idiotic comments that show up at the bottom of stories. They are truly one of the worst parts of the job. Here's a couple of choice ones from the Golden Rice story:

There is no need for golden rice! Carrots produce beta-carotene. So do apricots, sweet potatoes, squash, spinach, broccoli, romaine lettuce, apricots, and green pepper, kale, turnip greens, collard greens and a variety of other foods. These foods all grow well in many parts of Africa! Why not encourage people in Africa in eat a variety of foods?

Whoopee! I can hear it now. A new rice that we can charge more for because the smelly masses think its better for them. Low fat diets? More expensive! Reliance on fresh rather than processed foods? More expensive! Need I say more? All we need is Soylent Green.

Those are just the tip of the iceberg. A few weeks ago, I wrote a story about the upcoming Tron: Evolution video game (developed in Canada), and before you knew it, the comments degenerated into a debate over God and creationism. It got so bad we had to remove a bunch of them and institute special moderation. And this was for a story about a video game where players race futuristic motorcycles. Actual stories about God and creationism often get their comments section turned off altogether.

Now, I know it's foolish to take the comments too seriously as they do represent only a very small percentage of actual readers - I've heard estimates of perhaps 10%. Moreover, while the majority of comments are useless, stupid or even offensive, there are some that are intelligent, well thought out or useful. There have been many times when readers have pointed out other useful facts that added to my stories and, not to mention the occasional error. Those are great comments to get, but they constitute a massive minority.

Some people say the best thing to do is ignore the stupid comments, but I don't think you can do that because in a sense, they are part of the story - and they do have an effect. I've had sources refuse to talk to me on the grounds that they don't want to (inevitably) get crucified in the comments section. And it's not just me - a spokesman for CBC said last month that the corporation is considering doing away with comments anonymity because of these sorts of issues. Dave Cormier, a father in Halifax who lost his child a few years ago, was attacked anonymously in the comments section of a story that ran at the time. As last month's report said, "Cormier says he and his partner probably won't be doing any more media interviews. He says they've had enough of being attacked by people hiding behind screen names."

Exactly. Anonymous comments are hindering journalists' efforts at getting information, and they're scaring people from putting their names into those stories because they'd rather not get anonymously attacked.

There are some defenders of anonymity out there, like former Washington Post editor Doug Feaver, who last year argued that such comments are good because "it is useful to be reminded bluntly that the dark forces are out there and that it is too easy to forget that truth by imposing rules that obscure it."

That may be the case, but I think Feaver forgot one of the fundamental rules of a democracy (and Spider-Man comics): with great power comes great responsibility. When someone is granted a right or a privilege, the ability to go out and abuse it does not automatically follow. In that vein, if someone wants to post a provocative comment, they should be willing to back it up and not hide behind a fake name, the same way they would do in the real world. Or at least, that's my opinion.

It's an issue that virtually every media organization is dealing with. Some are opting for innovative approaches, like Reuters, which recently instituted a sort of VIP system that lets readers earn points and credibility by submitting good comments. Others, such as Activision/Blizzard - makers of the World of Warcraft video game - tried to get rid of anonymous comments and faced the wrath of gamers.

I'm not sure what the answer is and I'll definitely have more thoughts to add on the subject in the future, but like I said, I'm glad it's not something I'm going to have to deal with on a daily basis anymore. (So far it hasn't proven to be a problem here, and I hope it never does.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Would you like that pizza... extra large?

Sex and fast food - what a natural fit, right? The owners of UK chain Pizza Express believe so. According to The Telegraph, staff are being trained in the fine art of flirtation in order to give customers a more "comfortable and relaxed" experience.

The chain is using classically trained actor Karl James to instruct wait staff in the fine art of conversation, and how to butter customers up so that they spend more. (I'm guessing that Pizza Express probably didn't have too much trouble finding James, considering that like most actors, he was probably already on the wait staff.)

Interestingly, the chain felt that running these sorts of courses was necessary because technology and social media are making us completely inept at conversation. According to a source close to the company:

With social media and texting reducing our face-to-face interaction, Pizza Express has enlisted the help of a conversational expert who is incorporating flirting and unique conversation techniques … into its new staff training scheme to help completely redefine the restaurant experience for customers.

The best part of this whole story is... that it's actually a story. I've known a number of waitresses and bartenders in my time and this sort of thing would not come as a surprise to any of them. I hate to break it to The Telegraph, but flirting with your customers to weasel more dollars out of them is a time-honoured tradition in the service industry.

Still, I may just pop by a Pizza Express while I'm over in the UK in a few weeks just to see how far they take it. According to the story, staff have probably been warned not to get carried away. "If they mean customer flirting in the sense of 'what are you doing later when the kids are in bed', that's not a good idea," said one observer.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Amazon Singles raises questions

I'm really jazzed by some apparently awesome news from Amazon this week, which came on the same day that I announced my impending move to professional freedom. If you didn't see it, the online bookseller announced something called Amazon Singles - don't think Kraft Singles or even Spam Singles, but rather the sort of "singles" released by musicians.

Amazon Singles are a sort of e-book, but not really an e-book. As the company describes it, a Single is somewhere in between - it ranges from 10,000 to 30,000 words (or 30 to 90 pages), which makes it "twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book." As the nomenclature implies, an Amazon Single is to a book what an individual song is to an album.

Amazon is going to introduce Singles as a separate category in its Kindle store, and they will be priced "much less than a typical book." The announcement is "a call to serious writers, thinkers, scientists, business leaders, historians, politicians and publishers to join Amazon in making such works available to readers around the world."

As the company puts it, Singles are intended as the perfect way "to lay out a single killer idea, well researched, well argued and well illustrated - whether it's a business lesson, a political point of view, a scientific argument, or a beautifully crafted essay on a current event."

Perhaps the most interesting part of the announcement is how written works will get into the Singles store: writers will submit them to Amazon, which will then judge them.

That raises a lot of questions, and it could be a really good thing - or a less good thing. The main questions are what sort of criteria will Amazon apply to judging what gets in and what doesn't, and will actual employees read the submissions to make determinations? I asked Amazon and so far, they ain't talking.

If humans judge submissions, the quality level of Singles would, presumingly, be fairly high. However, I doubt humans will be in control, for a couple of reasons.

Doing so would bring up something called "scalability," which is techno-jargon for being able to automate things. For a good explanation of the term, you may want to check out by Randall Stross. In his book, Stross explains why Google was able to leapfrog over Yahoo as the world's pre-eminent search engine. The secret lays in scalability - in its early days, Yahoo had humans manually compiling the search results you'd get when you used its engine. Google figured out a way to have computer algorithms do that, which meant it could easily handle billions of searches a second. Yahoo's humans, of course, couldn't match that kind of volume.

The same is likely to hold true with Amazon's Singles. While the company could easily handle a small load of submissions, ultimately it won't be able to deal with the increases in volume that will come if the service proves popular. My suspicion is that algorithms will scan submissions and flag any that contain hate speech or other undesirable stuff, which would then be read by humans. Otherwise, though, just about everything is likely to get approved for sale.

Again, there's no way to be sure yet as Amazon isn't divulging, but there's another reason why I don't think humans will be the judges. Singles seems to be somewhat of an FU to book publishers, with whom Amazon has had a less than smooth relationship. Like an old married couple, Amazon and publishers are continually bickering - in their case, about pricing (especially e-book pricing).

Singles, like Amazon's , seems to be a call to the writers who get jerked around by publishers to bypass those self-same gatekeepers. It seems pretty unlikely then that Amazon would go and do the same sort of gate-keeping with some self-imposed publication standards.

Amazon also hasn't said how pricing and payment of Singles will work, which leaves us to presume it'll probably be the same as self-published books - authors get 70% of whatever they charge, while Amazon gets 30%.

Ultimately, the human-algorithm dichotomy is a bit of a double-edged sword. If humans end up acting as gatekeepers to the Singles store, Amazon will turn itself into a de facto publisher; it will be using its own brand as a stamp of approval, and writers who get in will benefit from it. On the other hand, if algorithms are in charge and everyone is allowed in, then writing is greatly democratized, the downside of which is that writers must then do their own promotion. For writers who aren't afraid to do that (myself included), that's not necessarily a bad thing.

I'm anxious to have these questions answered but at this point, Singles seem to be music to my newly independent-writer ears. Amazon would have to come out with some pretty crappy terms for me to not give this service a try when it goes live.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

UK book launch is imminent

November is fast approaching, which means that so is the U.K. publication of Sex, Bombs and Burgers. The book comes out in the U.K. on November 1, and I'm heading over to do some publicity and promotion.

One of the main stops will be the U.K. Festival of Ideas in Bristol. I'm going to be speaking about my book on November 8 - if you're in the area, check out the details here. Otherwise, Sex, Bombs and Burgers is being published by Allen & Unwin and will be in fine bookstores everywhere, and it's also available on

Appearing at the Festival is quite the honour, with other recent guests including Gwynne Dyer and William Gibson, who, next to Neil Gaiman, is probably my favourite author.

The U.K. figures fairly prominently in the book as a number of important military inventions that eventually crossed over into the consumer world originated there. The last time I was over on that side of the pond, I was actually researching some of these (plus taking in some leisurely Munro-bagging in Scotland). I'll detail some of those inventions closer to my trip.

This time around, I'm planning to take in some of the sites in Wales, given its proximity to Bristol. Alas, there doesn't appear to be a Catherine Zeta Jones museum...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Declaration of independence

I'm pleased to announce that I've resigned my post as senior science and technology reporter at, with my last day on the job being October 29. I've enjoyed working at the Mothership, but the time has come to move on to some other stuff I've been wanting to do for a while now. The decision didn't come lightly, but ultimately it was an easy one to make.

I came to the Ceeb after more than a decade of working in newspapers. One of my main reasons for doing so was to learn about online journalism, and to dip my toes into the broadcast pool of radio and TV. Now, three years later, like Dubya once said, it's mission accomplished.

One of the things I really liked about working online is that it's still, relatively speaking, the Wild West, where just about anything goes. I was free to delve into whatever popped into my head, and to do it in a variety of ways. While I love writing and that's what I do, I really dug the ability to do some different things - I was quite proud of the "Making of a Video Game" mini-documentary I recently put together, for example, for our Pushing Buttons series.

I also had some decent exposure to radio, a medium that I've really come to respect during my time at CBC. On a number of occasions, I had the pleasure of working with the folks at Spark (thanks Nora, Dan and Elizabeth) and a couple of other programs. I found radio to be more substantive than television as the conversations were a bit longer and could therefore usually go deeper. It's also a very different way of telling stories, which as a writer of words I found really intriguing. Spark's presentation of the interview we did about my book earlier this year is a great example.

I've always found television to be somewhat shallow - we used to tease the broadcast students back in journalism school about how they needed their beauty sleep - but at the same time, I've always been cognizant of its power. We word writers can churn out copy about the biggest social injustices till we're blue in the fingers, but nothing ever really happens until it gets on television. I'm glad, therefore, that I was able to get the TV folks interested in subjects like Canada's woeful cellphone situation, and net neutrality during my time.

That said, all of those great learning experiences have also added up into why I'm leaving. The online news world, unfortunately, is an ever-hungry one - a gaping maw that must be fed all the time, with no let up. Truth be told, I've never been comfortable writing straight-up news but have rather always been far more interested in getting deeper into the bigger picture, the larger truth that all the daily minutiae adds up to. My bosses have always been very good about letting me try to do that, but nevertheless, the pressure to feed that daily beast was always there, ebbing away at the time available to do so. Working next door to the television folks and their 24-hour news cycle only compounded the problem. I can't tell you how many times I've seen stories online or on television and slapped my forehead thinking, "Why is this getting the time of day?"

Stepping away now is my effort to catch my breath, to relax and digest. Sex, Bombs and Burgers hasn't made me rich, but it has given me the financial leeway to concentrate on some longer-term projects. I still love technology (and video games!) and will be freelancing, largely for magazines. I've also got a couple of book projects on the boil. I'll share more on all of this here in the weeks and months to come, although "here" is relative for now. I'll soon be launching a new website to reflect my new life of quasi-leisure, so I won't be pegged into blogging simply about war, porn and fast food. Oh yes, I'll be expanding my often-inane rantings to all sorts of topics! Details coming soon. In the short term, I'll also be devoting some time to Sex, Bombs and Burgers and its upcoming U.K. and U.S. launches (more info on some of that tomorrow), as well as its paperback release in Canada in March.

Now that I think about it, my pending life of leisure doesn't look like it's going to be too leisurely...

Monday, October 11, 2010

A weekend of turkey and robot cars

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving everyone! I can't keep my dates straight so I'm not sure if it was actually today or yesterday, but not that it matters because it's a holiday and I'm spending it gorging on turkey.

In that vein, I'm sure there are a number of Canadians out there getting excited for the real feast, which hits seven days from now: the KFC Double Down, which arrives in Canada on Oct. 18. My compatriot Steve Tilley, who writes about video games and other tech stuff for the Toronto Sun, had a story over the weekend about why Canadians are so jazzed about this monstrosity of a sandwich. He asked me for my thoughts and I told him it was very Freudian. Check out the story.

The other big piece of news over the weekend was Google's revelation that it has been working on and testing robot cars. That's right - cars that drive themselves. The Google is written by none other than Sebastian Thrun, the computer scientist at Stanford who developed Stanley, the robot car that won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge robot car race. Here's a video of the Google car on the road:

The DARPA challenges (three of them so far) and what they will mean to the future of cars are covered in Sex, Bombs and Burgers. I actually had the privilege of riding in The Boss, the car that won the 2007 DARPA race, a couple of years ago at the Consumer Electronics Show. It was one of the most amazing things I've ever experienced in my life - watching the steering wheel turn itself was something right out of Knight Rider.

Google's news came completely out of left field, although in hindsight it's hardly surprising because this is a company that continually does amazing things. It was also incredibly welcome news. There's going to be a predictable chorus of people thinking up reasons why having robot cars is bad, but I for one am glad that someone has the cajones to try and invent the future rather than just sit around and talk about it.

In any event, enjoy the turkey and don't forget to come back tomorrow for some really big news!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Children know food better than adults

I was hoping to have a whole week of military-themed posts but then something so big, so monumental happened that I just didn't have any choice but to change tracks today: the KFC Double Down is finally coming to Canada!

Oh yes, it's true: the 540-calorie monstrosity of a sandwich, with chicken breasts replacing the bun, hits Canadian KFCs on Oct. 18, supposedly for a "limited time" until Nov. 14. I wouldn't bet on it being limited - I suspect it'll be as popular here as it has been in the United States, which means it is destined to become a permanent fixture on KFC's Canadian menu.

Of course, with the announcement came the inevitable wave of food fascists, decrying the sandwich for... well... for being what it is: a pretty serious piece of junk food, what with all the calories, fat and sodium it packs. I'm sure somebody somewhere is whining about how this is making our kids obese, et cetera.

My response to this sort of criticism is always pretty hardline: I like the fact that we live in a country where we're lucky enough to eat whatever we want, no matter how bad it is for us. And if someone is worried about their children (or themselves) getting fat or developing health problems, maybe they just shouldn't eat at KFC, or perhaps they should exercise a little more. But don't rain on anyone else's Colonel parade.

On a related note, there's been a photo/blog post floating around the web lately that has really ticked me off. Some writer named Michael Kindt posted this rather nasty-looking picture on his blog the other day of a pink "meat" paste coming out of some sort of contraption. He said it was what "all fast-food chicken is made from - things like chicken nuggets and patties. Also, the processed frozen chicken in the stores is made from it." His post spread like wildfire, with blogs and media playing it up. I noticed it when a few co-workers looked at the post and made remarks like, "I'm never eating chicken nuggets again!"

The only problem: he's wrong, wrong, wrong. What the picture shows is "mechanically separated meat," which is all the icky bits of an animal ground up that, yes, does look gross. But, in the first instance, it's very rarely used, at least in North America. Mechanically separated beef has been illegal to use since 2004, when it was found that including the central nervous system of cows in the meat could help spread Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow disease). Mechanically separated poultry is perfectly safe, but it must be labelled as such. Food makers, knowing that the public has access to such photos, have largely opted not to use such poultry for fear of the inevitable backlash, such as the false one that's going around now.

Even celebrity chef (and food snob) Jamie Oliver knows this. As he says in the video below, "Thankfully, chicken nuggets in this country are not made this way." In the video, which you should definitely watch, Oliver tries to gross out some American kids by showing them how mechanically separated chicken nuggets are made. His attempt to "blow their minds," however, backfires when the kids all decide they want to eat the nuggets anyway:

I found the video really illuminating for a couple of reasons. Mainly, it's a real showcase of food snobbery (Oliver's). Yes, it's true that the pink paste concoction is disgusting to look at, and perhaps to think about - but so what? If it's not harmful to eat, isn't it actually a more efficient use of the chicken? Just because we've been conditioned to accept only certain parts of the chicken as edible, that doesn't mean the rest of it isn't. As we've done for millenia, if you're going to kill an animal in the first place, shouldn't you use as much of it as possible and not throw away parts needlessly?

That's what amazed me about the children. When Oliver asked them why they still wanted to eat the nuggets, they said, "Because we're hungry." There's a saying that truth often comes from the mouths of babes, and here's a perfect case. The children, who haven't necessarily been conditioned yet to reject food because of how it looks before it's properly presented, recognize that simple truth. Score one for children, and subtract another one from the food fascists.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Military creates vehicles with intelligent ears

Continuing along with this week's military theme, the folks at DARPA (the Pentagon's mad science lab) have just announced that a new system called CROSSHAIRS has been deployed to Afghanistan.

As with just about everything the military comes up with, CROSSHAIRS is an acronym. It stands for the Counter RPG Shooter System with Highly Accurate Immediate Responses, which is a stretch even for DARPA (if you didn't know, the people who invent these things do actually come up with the acronyms first and then try to think up words to fit them). Name notwithstanding, the system is actually quite neat in what it does.

CROSSHAIRS is a sensor system attached to a vehicle that can detect where small arms, RPG and anti-tank fire is coming from. When used in conjunction with another DARPA invention, the Boomerang II, its acoustic sensors can identify shockwaves and muzzle blasts generated by small arms fire to provide "situational awareness for multiple incoming threats with 360 degree coverage around a vehicle."

In plain English, if a convoy of vehicles equipped with the system is trucking around through the Afghan desert and one gets shot at or blown up with a rocket-propelled grenade, troops in the other vehicles are instantly alerted as to where the attack came from. That should greatly neutralize the chaos that can arise when a group of vehicles is ambushed, leading to a much more effective defense and counter-attack.

What are the potential real-world applications of this technology? Good question - it's still pretty new so it's hard  to tell, but it could obviously make microphones much more accurate in their recording. Applied to robots, it could also make them much better listeners as they'd be able to differentiate more clearly between who is speaking at them and from what direction.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Robots with that human touch

I've been meaning to write today's post for some time now, but just kept getting bogged down with other stuff. Last month, a group of researchers at the University of California Berkeley announced a rather amazing breakthrough: something they're calling "e-skin."

It's essentially robotic skin composed of microscopic semiconductor nanowires that can effectively replicate the ability to feel. As one of the researchers puts it: "The idea is to have a material that functions like the human skin, which means incorporating the ability to feel and touch objects."

As the picture suggests, one of the main problems with robots right now is that they don't have the fine sense of touch that humans do. A robot can pick up an egg, but it might end up crushing it because it lacks that exacting ability to "feel."

The e-skin looks to fix that by giving the robot electrical stimuli that simulates the sense of touch. The material, made up of crystalline silicon, is a big breakthrough because it can conduct electricity at a very low power, as opposed to previous attempts which required a considerable amount of charge. Attempts to simulate the sense of touch by using organic materials also didn't work out because they couldn't convey the electrical impulses properly.

The research is being funded by the National Science Foundation and DARPA, the Pentagon's advanced science division. Both the military and mainstream uses are quite obvious - bomb disposal robots are becoming ubiquitous in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, so giving them an even finer sense of touch would help immensely.

In the consumer space, the article on the Berkeley site mentions that the e-skin could help restore the sense of touch to people with artificial limbs. Interestingly, DARPA's bionic arm - which the user works through a neural implant - is going into clinical tests on humans. Combine these two technologies and you've got an artificial arm that could be almost as good as the real thing. Add in a few years of further development and it stands to reason that bionic arms will soon be superior to the real thing. Where do I preorder?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Robots on patrol

From the "One Step Closer to Transformers" file, the National Nuclear Security Administration has announced that is now using robots to patrol a Nevada test base. While that may conjure images of Terminator-like, gun-toting cyborgs, the reality is that the robots are buggy-like vehicles with cameras and sensors mounted on their roofs.

The Mobile Detection Assessment Response Systems is autonomous and can conduct random patrols around the 1,360-square-mile Nevada National Security Site, which is about 65 miles from Las Vegas. The trio of robots can go up to 20 miles an hour and can keep track of facilities through radio frequency identification tags, so they can tell if a fence or lock has been tampered with.

The only time a human operator needs to come into play is if the robot encounters a situation, such as a faulty gate or intruder. Human operators can then take over control of the robot, and they can interact with people through its microphones and speakers. Alas, the MDAS doesn't appear to have any weapons (lethal or non-lethal), so it seems like the only thing the operator will be able to do is yell at unauthorized intruders.

Here's a video of the robot in action:

The NNSA said it built the robots along with the Office of Health, Safety and Security with spare parts acquired from the Army, but it did not say what they cost. Officials did say the robots will save the department about $6 million in infrastructure costs, which come from having to maintain watch towers, lights, motion detection and all the other stuff.

The robots reminded me a little bit of a trip I took out to Area 51 a few years back. The famous base, long rumoured to house a crashed alien UFO, attracts tons of like-minded visitors every year, who are allowed to drive up the base's road - to a certain point. That point is marked by a number of signs that strongly discourage anyone from going any further.

Moreover, I remember seeing a pickup truck parked on a distant hill, with a lone figure inside keeping watch. The truck was too far away to discern if the person inside was actually real, so I've always wondered if it was just a lifeless dummy put there to further scare people. Could it have been a robot all along?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Real-life Iron Man suit gets a sequel

I've been neglecting the military side of technology lately, so let's see if I can't make this a special theme week - ahead of some major news next week.

A good to place to start is with an update on the Raytheon Iron Man suit I've mentioned a few times before. Just as the movie sequel hit theaters this past summer, so too has the defense contractor come up with its own second version. The XOS2 suit uses half the power the original did and is scheduled to be in the field within the next five years.

As Raytheon representatives and actor Clark Gregg (who's been in a few Iron Man movies) explain in the video below, there will be two versions of the suit - a waist-down version will be used in combat, allowing troops to carry heavy backpacks. A full version will be used in support roles to load and unload supplies and the like:

It's pretty safe to assume that once these things prove themselves in the field, they'll start to get weapon attachments. The suits lend themselves very well to carrying very heavy weapons such as chain guns or rocket launchers.

The non-military uses are of course obvious - Sigourney Weaver used a big version of one of these suits as a in Aliens (as well as a battle suit to fight the alien queen), so it'll obviously come in very handy for the shipping industry.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Avatar goes triple-X

The highlight of my "interview" with Steel Panther, the parody glam metal band, a few months back had to have been our discussion about Avatar. Guitarist Satchel had some interesting thoughts about whether it would be preferable to have sex with one of the huge blue Na'vi women from Avatar, or one of the little people from The Wizard of the Oz. His inclination was to go for the little people because it would make him, ahem, look bigger.

But as these things often go, jokes have turned into reality. First, Hustler - the masters of parody porn - are it again with This Ain't Avatar XXX. Seeing as James Cameron's movie was largely premised on the main character looking to get some action with one of the Na'vi, it was only a matter of time before the porn guys picked up on it. Here's the safe-for-work trailer:

Oh, but why stop there? Why limit yourself to just watching an X-rated version of Avatar?

Clearly, that's what the people who make the Fleshlight were thinking. The Fleshlight is a male sex toy that is shaped much like a flashlight, hence its name. The big difference is, it's a vagina simulator that has done quite well for Interactive Life Forms, the company that makes it. A number of porn stars have even signed up to have their privates molded into the rubber sleeves that go inside the Fleshlight.

The photo above is pretty much the least graphic one - for better views, head on over to Gizmodo, although you might not want to do so at work.

The only question is: how did they get the mold? Could it have been from the Science of Avatar documentary on the Discovery Channel?
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