So, last night I was looking at the iTunes page for the Science on Top podcast. Thanks to all the kind people who have written such nice reviews, it’s very much appreciated!
But while there, I noticed something strange. Our latest episode, “Bugs Bonking Bottles – The Ig Nobel Prizes” has been censored by iTunes. Now, I need to be clear here: the actual show has not been censored, and the show still has a ‘Clean” rating which means it’s not full of rude words. But the title, as it shows up in iTunes, has been censored.
The actual title:
SoT 28: Bugs Bonking Bottles – The Ig Nobel Prizes
Has been changed in iTunes to:
SoT 28: Bugs B*****g Bottles – The Ig Nobel Prizes
That’s right, that bastion of good taste has decided that the word “bonk”, with its obvious connotations of wild, vigorous lovemaking, is inappropriate for young children to read. Nevermind that the dictionary definition of bonk lists quite innocuous meanings initially:
And it’s only when you get to the third definition that bonk gets raunchy:
- An act of sexual intercourse
- A level of exhaustion that makes a cyclist or runner unable to go further
- - we had the bonk when we were saddle sore
And personally, I find the words “saddle sore” far kinkier than the word “bonk”, but that could be just me.
Now I know it’s not cool to be ‘hating’ on Apple less than a week after Steve Jobs’ death. And believe me, I’m deeply saddened that the tech world has lost someone of such vision and capability. Were it not for Jobs, I would not be called a podcaster. I’d be a ‘netcaster’ or (shudder) a ‘Zunecaster‘. Even iTunes has changed the game and made it easy for people to find great podcasts like Science on Top. And I know, the word ‘bonk’ was probably automatically ‘bleeped’, I doubt there’s a human being who actually has a problem with the word.
Someone still had to tell the automated software to bleep out ‘bonk’.
And that’s just bonking stupid. #bonkgate
Guest post by Hamish Lucas.
Daylight savings is here again! What a wonderful time of year it is. Crisp cool evenings, warm afternoons and extra long days are conducive to getting more work at home done and more play time with our baby boy. It truly is one of my favourite time of year, which is why, when the clock ran forward an hour last Saturday, I was in an excellent frame of mind. That is until Monday morning.
By Sunday evening i was still yet to put all our clocks forward to match the new EDT (GMT-9). My trusty iPhone with which I am addicted however did not let me down, and automatically updated the time on Saturday night.
With this in mind, and faith in my heart, I went to sleep knowing I would be woken by my reliable, trusty iPhone.
Monday morning 5:30am, all my clocks are reading 4:30 and the iPhone starts its alarm, claiming it’s 6:30!
OK so I cope with that (mostly because I didn’t notice at the time) and get to work early albeit groggy.
Some discussion has ensued as to why this may be. It’s a recurring alarm, set before the Daylight savings period. Clearly there’s a bug, because the alarm is stored in gmt, which didn’t change of course.
Happy with this diagnosis, I deleted all my alarms and reset them.
Tuesday morning: 5:30am – you guessed it, the alarm went off!
In frustration, I set a single alarm for 8:30 so I could sleep in a bit. This logical course of action had the iPhone’s alarm going off at 8:30! So now very late to work, the diagnosis of this bug was really starting to annoy me.
At this point I realise that my diagnosis was – ahem – wrong. If I was right, the alarm would be going off late not early. So it seems that Apple and Steve Jobs have overcompensated. Let’s leave the innuendo alone, I’m not quite furious enough yet to start overt personal attacks.
Now comes some testing between myself and my tech savvy iPhone confederates. As it turns out, this bug, that may or may not have been triggered by the onset of daylight savings, only affects my most favourite of features: The repeating alarm. The alarm that I rely on. The alarm I never have to set. The alarm that knows not to wake me on weekends. This now buggy alarm has done what I thought nobody could do: Turned me from an impoverished iFanBoy to actually noticing all the other little bugs in the iPhone.
Whilst I still think it’s a great piece of hardware, Apple’re going to have to fix this fast, and apologise greatly in order to restore my faith in their programming.
By Wednesday morning, tired, disenchanted and miserable, I made it in to work on time.
Thanks Apple. You’ve ruined my happy Spring.
Space. It’s fascinating. I’ve geeked out on space stuff since I was a kid. I had books and videos about the solar system, I built Lego space stations and spaceships, and of course I watched sci-fi movies and tv shows. In 1989, when the Voyager 2 space probe passed Neptune, I poured over newspaper clippings and magazine articles with full-colour glossy photos of the murky blue gaseous planet.
So when I heard that Hubble 3D was showing at the iMax theatre, I had to go. It’s only 45 minutes long but it’s filled with some amazing footage. Incredible scenes of space taken by Hubble and then turned into beautiful 3D models of galaxies, supernovae and stellar nurseries. Footage of astronauts doing slow-motion spacewalks to service the telescope as well as life on board the shuttles, and the training conducted four-stories underwater to prepare for them. If you’re even a little bit interested in space, I recommend seeing this.
Thanks to the internet, there’s now a myriad of new ways to geek out on space. Blogs, magazines, podcasts and twitter feeds are just the start. Perhaps one of the best things a space geek can do is subscribe to Phil Plait’s blog, Bad Astronomy. A scientist who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope program, has written two books about space and now has his own TV series “Bad Universe”, I think of him as the Carl Sagan of our generation. He’s famously written articles debunking popular myths like astrology and the ‘moon landing hoax’. And nearly every day, he posts interesting pictures or articles about space. But most importantly, he explains what it is you’re seeing, and why it’s so remarkable.
Here are just a few recent examples. Click each of the photos below to get Phil’s explanations. They’re very cool!
When Too Much Information Is A Bad Thing
We’re inundated with information all the time, from every source imaginable – traditional media like newspapers, television and radio; new media like blogs, forums and podcasts; conventional in-person interactions and a host of other forms. That’s a fantastic thing. To think that now I can type “vaccination” into Google and get more than 15.2 million results in less than one-fifth of a second is phenomenal. Twenty years ago, we could only dream of such a huge volume of information. It was amazing back then, when a complete and searchable encyclopedia could fit on a compact disc. Now, of course, just the English version alone of Wikipedia (only 3.37 million out of a total 16 million articles for all languages) is over 230.3 gigabytes – or 337 compact discs. This, as The Wire’s Marlowe Stanfield would say, “sounds like one of them good problems”.
But the problem isn’t that there’s so much information, the problem is that the quality doesn’t match the quantity. Of those 15.2 million vaccination results, some will be from blog posts saying “today I took Billy in for his vaccination, he was very brave” while others will be useful, factual information from peer-reviewed medical journals. Sure, search engines do an incredible job of finding and sorting relevant information. That blog post isn’t going to get nearly as many links as the Wikipedia page or the website of the Australian Vaccination Network – the top two search results – so it will be buried further down in the results. And right there is the problem – that’s relevancy, not authority. Yes, those sites are more relevant to most people, but are they the most informative, authoritative sites? There’s no way for a search engine to know if the Australian Vaccination Network gives accurate, scientific information or not.
And guess what, it doesn’t.
After investigating the group, the NSW Healthcare Complaints Commission (HCCC) has released a damning report that claims “the AVN provides information that is inaccurate and misleading”. The report reveals that the group “provides information that is solely anti-vaccination” and that it “quotes selectively from research to suggest that vaccination may be dangerous”.
The story is best covered by Walkley Award winning journalist Steve Cannane on Lateline:
The problem of authority is obviously a problem not just on the internet, but in real life as well. And just as finding relevant information online was a challenge before Google came along, I think finding authoritative information is our current – and much harder – problem. But at least on the internet it’s easy to reference the sources of information and determine its accuracy. That’s perhaps what the quest for authority demonstrates – the awesome power of the link. By showing sources, by linking to the facts, a site demonstrates its authority. It’s self-regulation, and clearly not particularly effective, but for now it’s the best we can do.
I saved a workmate from wasting $20 the other day. Granted, it’s not a huge sum, but there’s a global financial crisis and every bit helps. You see, she was bidding on eBay during her break, and I asked what she was trying to buy. Turns out she’s buying a magic product designed to make her stronger, more flexible, and more balanced. It could probably make her invisible, able to fly and see through walls.
It’s a kind of magic.
PowerBalance bracelets are the latest craze in town. Particularly in the sports and gym industries, where people will buy any gadget or gizmo if they think it might improve their performance. There’s not much information on the official site, but here’s how they say it works:
They “embed” some “naturally occurring frequencies” into a hologram on a silicone bracelet.
And that’s it.
Even basketballer Shaquille O’Neal endorses them, saying: “I don’t really do a lot of testimonials, but this really works! … I kept feeling something when I wore the bracelet, so I kept wearing it … I want to do everything to get the slightest advantage; wristbands, necklaces, t-shirts, band-aids, everything and anything we can get our hands on. I’m here to tell you it works!” Well that should be enough to convince anyone. I wonder if they do PowerBalance band-aids?
Of course, it’s likely The Shaq only says such nice things because I assume PowerBalance is paying him a lot of money to do so. But he says on the website he “did the test” and was convinced of their ability. What test is that? Well here’s a promotional clip that shows you. It’s very convincing:
See, I told you it was convincing. And I can understand why my coworker wanted to get one. She said someone did the flexibility test on her and she was really impressed with the results. And for only $20, it’ll be worth it!
Unfortunately – and you knew this was coming, didn’t you – the bracelets are nothing but a scam. They don’t work, all they do is take away your money. Even just ignoring the ludicrous “science” used to describe how it works, the “tests” they do are well-known tricks used as part of applied kinesiology. Applied Kinesiology is a method chiropractors and other “alternative medicine” practitioners use for diagnosis. Richard Saunders, vice-president of Australian Skeptics, made this video to demonstrate how it’s done.
So there you go. The usual adage of “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is” holds firmly. When Today Tonight ran a story on the amazing bracelets, they got such a response they did a follow-up a week later. The second time they got Richard on the show as well to run some tests, which proved the PowerBalance bands don’t work. The story was badly edited, and doesn’t show all the tests, but it’s still clear enough.
The lesson here is, as always, to think things through rationally and objectively. The internet’s a great resource for researching suspicious claims. And never be satisfied with someone telling you “it just works”. Find out how it works. Learn about it, and investigate the science behind it.
Have you ever been conned by a gimmick, or come close to it? Ever busted a myth?
“Not even the almost-certain demise of Steve Fielding is enough to make me follow this election. On election night I’m getting as far away from TV, radio, internets and phone reception as I possibly can.”
Microsoft Office sucks. Sure, I use it everyday, but that’s because I have to for work. It’s slow and bloated, and unbelievably expensive. And ever since they did away with the familiar menu-based system, I’ve had to hunt around to find my more commonly used tasks. Did I mention it’s expensive? It is. To download the basic MS Office 2007 from the Microsoft website costs $US399.95 – a huge expense even for large companies. What if there was a comparable, free alternative?
Of course, there is! OpenOffice.org is one of the most successful open-source projects around. Originally a Sun Microsystems product, the source code was made public in July 2000 and made open-source. Sun still sells StarOffice, which is essentially OpenOffice.org with some proprietary additional features. Despite the name being a URL, OpenOffice.org is not an online web-app, it is a local software suite that runs on nearly every platform. OpenOffice is a trademark for another company in some countries, so the software is called OpenOffice.org (or OOo or OO.o) to distinguish it – but in this article I’ll stick to OpenOffice.
The Standard version of Microsoft Office has four components: Excel, Word, Outlook and PowerPoint. OpenOffice on the other hand, comes with six: Writer (a word processor), Calc (spreadsheet), Impress (presentation software), Base (database program), Draw (graphics) and Math (equation editor). And OpenOffice can read and write MS Office files, although any document you create with it is saved by default as OpenDocument Format (an international standard file format). MS Office feels much more powerful and feature-rich, although in fairness I haven’t found many things OpenOffice doesn’t do that MS Office does. But the main advantage for using OpenOffice is not just the upfront cost saving, but the ongoing savings as well. Because the software is free, so are all updates to it – upgrading MS Office to Office Standard 2007 costs US239.95. And because OpenOffice is available on Mac, Windows, OS/2 and Linux, if you change platforms later on you don’t have to worry about migrating your data with it.
But the main feature that OpenOffice lacks, compared to MS Office, is online collaboration. Microsoft Live is an online workspace that allows you to share your documents with co-workers anywhere in the world. You sign up in your browser, and you can see all your documents that you’ve stored online. Clicking “Edit” marks them as “checked out” and opens the file on your computer in MS Office. Online collaboration is becoming more and more essential for online companies, but it’s also just as useful within the same building. And of course, it makes working from home much easier when you don’t have to take your files home on a flash drive.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the king of online office collaboration comes from Google. Many of you may have used Google Docs, a completely online browser-based office suite that can import/export MS Office files. One of it’s best features, in my opinion, is it’s ability to have a document edited by two or more people at the same time. Recently when Seamus was organising his buck’s party, he put the list of people to invite in a shared Google Docs spreadsheet that the groomsmen all had access to. As we contacted each person, we would then update the spreadsheet to say whether they were coming or not, and add any notes. Often Seamus or I would be updating it at the same time, and we could see the changes each other was making (and even chat with each other about it, without leaving the window).
Google Docs offers spreadsheets, word processing documents, presentations and online forms (such as feedback forms and surveys) and integrates with your existing Gmail account. However, business users should look into the more functional Google Apps suite, which allows you to run Gmail and Google Docs from your own website. Your company email, then, could be Gmail but branded for your company. All your employees would have an account for your Google Apps which is separate from their personal Google accounts, and they’d store all their work related documents on your website (or on Google, but accessed through your site). It’s completely secure, and different folders can be restricted for certain users etc. There are Non Profit, Educational and Government versions available, but businesses are most likely to use the Standard edition (free, but advertisement-funded) or Premier (US$50 per user per year). Standard version includes Gmail, Google Calendar, Docs and Sites – which lets you build your own company website as well as internal sites for within your company. The Premier version has all that as well as 25Gb email storage per user, Google Video, additional security options and round-the-clock support.
And the best thing about Google Apps, the thing that sets it light-years ahead of Microsoft Live? The recently announced Google Apps Marketplace, which allows you to integrate thousands of free or purchased third party online apps. Everything from Customer Relations Management (like the very popular Zoho CRM) to marketing (such as MailChimp, which streamlines newsletter and mailing list management), project management (like ManyMoon) to accounting and payroll (like Expensify or Intuit Online Payroll). Google Apps now makes it possible to take your company completely into the cloud, managing your whole business online. It’s easy to see where Google Europe chief John Herlihy was talking about when he said earlier this month “In three years time, desktops will be irrelevant”.The truth is, Google Apps offers so much for small and large businesses that I’m still learning my way around it all. Fortunately, Mashable have just posted this excellent introductory guide that explains what it’s all about.
A quick little post today to let you all know about a great service I’ve been using the past few weeks. We all have so many online accounts these days. Social media, online banking, forums, multimedia sites, productivity sites – and most people don’t think enough about the the security implications involved.
I know so many people who use the same password for all their online accounts. Stupid. Very very stupid. Earlier this year Twitter sent emails to a number of users advising them to change their password after ‘suspicious activity’ was detected. Turns out, it was a phishing scam that used a backdoor in free bittorent/forums software that a hacker exploited to gain the usernames, passwords and email addresses of potentially thousands of people. When I ran an online gaming site, one of the off-the-shelf gaming ladder systems we used stored users passwords unencrypted, plain text. That made it real easy for me, as an administrator, to fix users’ account problems, but it was a glaring, and unnecessary risk. Late last year, popular Facebook application developer RockYou (which made Super Wall and Birthday Cards, among others) had their servers hacked and thieves stole 32 million usernames and passwords. If your Facebook password is the same for your email or bank account, you’re giving those thieves access to a lot of damaging information. And there’s huge corporate implications here too – if you use your Facebook password for your work network or corporate email, you could be jeopardising sensitive business information. Every site you use should have its own, unique password.
And those passwords should be long, complicated and unpredictable. Online security company Imperva analysed the passwords stolen in the RockYou attack and reported that ‘nearly 50% of users used names, slang words, dictionary words or trivial passwords … The most common password is “123456”’. In fact, the detailed report lists the most common passwords and reveals that many passwords are so short and simple they would be easy for a “brute force attack” to crack them. Fortunately, Angus Kidman over at Lifehacker has produced a really handy guide to choosing passwords that are unique to each site, yet still easy to remember. That’s the system I use. However, if you’re really really worried about your passwords, security expert Steve Gibson has developed the Perfect Passwords page, which generates completely random 64-character strings every time it is refreshed.
But right there is the problem – how are you going to remember 64 different characters, for every single site you use? Obviously, you can’t do it just by memory. One popular way is with the free, open-source and program KeePass. KeePass stores your passwords in a very secure encrypted file, which you can access and decrypt with your (strong, right?) master password. This is perfect for your home computer, and it’s completely portable (doesn’t even need to be installed, and can be run straight from a USB drive) so you can take your passwords with you. It is something of a hassle, though, to have to copy and paste your passwords from KeePass – but that’s where KeeFox comes in. KeeFox is a FireFox extension that integrates your KeePass database. It’s still new and needs some refining, but it does the job and will improve with time. But obviously it’s limited to Firefox – if you’re using Chrome, Opera or Safari (we’re talking security, so you’re obviously not using Internet Explorer, right?) you’ll have to copy and paste from KeePass.
For the last few weeks I’ve been trying another method which solves that problem, and integrates nicely into all browsers on all platforms (and, for a small fee, even mobile devices). Lastpass is essentially an online KeePass. Your passwords (and notes and other sensitive data) are stored in your “Vault” online, accessible only with your master password. Connections between your computer and their server are secure and they only store your password in encrypted form – the decrypting happens on your computer, in your browser. You install the LastPass extension for your browser – Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera doesn’t matter, they’re all supported – and it can import and then delete passwords in your browser. Passwords stored in your browser are almost always in plain text, and therefore anyone with access to your computer can see them. After that, whenever you go to a website and log in, you can set LastPass to automatically log you in, or you can choose which username you want to log in to if you have multiple accounts for that site. Speaking of multiple accounts, you can have several with LastPass as well – so your spouse can log in to all his/her sites but not yours, if you wish. There’s a version designed for Firefox Portable, so you can load it on a USB drive and take it with you as well.
Both Keepass and LastPass are excellent password managers that I willingly recommend you check out. For me, I prefer LastPass for a number of reasons. Firstly, being online my passwords are available whether I’m at work, home or on the laptop. With KeePass, I’d have to sync my database file on all machines whenever I changed a password or signed up for a new site. Since I use Chrome on most of my machines, I can’t use the Firefox extension KeeFox but LastPass is available for all browsers I use. It’s also quicker and easier than KeePass because it can automatically log me in to my favorite sites. But KeePass is open-source, has a huge community behind it and has a proven track-record, so you may find it suits your needs just fine. Remember also, with LastPass you’re putting your trust in a third party and whilst they can’t see your passwords, if their servers go down you won’t be able to connect to anything. And if you’re without an internet connection, your saved notes won’t be available. The good news is, there’s no reason why you can’t run both, and keep your secure notes available offline.
How do you keep your passwords secure? Have you tried LastPass or KeyPass? Or have you ever had your account hacked as a result of phishing or an insecure password? Let us know!
Having looked at the good things and the bad things about the iPad, I’m now going to look at the market as a whole and see where the threats are going to come from. One of the best things about the iPad is that it got out there first. And while there are plenty of Tablet computers on the market or on the way, only the iPad is really finger-friendy, light and portable while still being reasonably functional. And at the moment, there really isn’t anything that competes with the iPad.
You have to remember, too, that this is a new market – it’s not the established tablet market, because the iPad can’t compete on features. Again, it’s an appliance – a media consumption device. A glorified e-reader.
So let’s compare it with the dominant King of e-readers, the Amazon Kindle. In it’s own right, it’s a fantastic device. The impressive e-ink screen mimics an actual book and has no backlight, so it’s very easy to read and doesn’t hurt the eyes. But it’s even more limited than the iPad – it can’t run apps, it can’t play movies or music. It’s just a black and white book/newspaper reader. That will change though – we already know Amazon is looking to implement apps capability for the Kindle, but even then it is starting from scratch. The iPad appstore has over 134,000 apps (80,000 of which are fart apps and Duke Nukem soundboards). Colour e-ink has been developed in working prototypes, so a Colour Kindle won’t be far away. Amazon will have to dramatically slash its price, though, given how severely limited it is compared to the very cheap iPad. The key strength of the Kindle is that it’s backed up by Amazon’s massive library of over 400,000 ebooks – but since the iPad can read Kindle books anyway, that advantage is gone. And while the iPad is ridiculously ugly, theKindle is oh so much worse.
Microsoft is touting it’s Windows 7 operating system as beingoptimised for tablets, and while the interface on Windows 7 is finger-friendly, many of the applications you use on a daily basis aren’t. Things like web browsers and email clients all have small menus rather than big, finger-sized buttons. And because most Win7 tablets are more like stripped-down laptops, with all the hardware you’d expect like cameras, wired ethernet, and an array of usb/video/networking ports they tend to be heavy and expensive. The big advantage they do have, however, is stylus support and handwriting recognition. It remains to be seen if the iPad has a sensitive enough screen to be used for writing or drawing.
The most hyped up Windows tablet coming out this year is probablythe HP Slate. Details are sketchy, but it’s believed to be have a 10” multi-touch LCD screen, a 1.8GHz processor (compared to the iPad’s 1GHz), and that’s about all we know. It’s due for release “Sometime in 2010”, and has a stupidly massive frame.
And then there’s smaller, almost unheard of companies like ExoPC and Archos who are have released or are planning to release mini-tablets, like iPads but with all the features of Win7.
The real competition for the iPod is from a tiny, little-known Californian company called Google. As proven by the Google Nexus, Motorola Droid and upcoming HTC Bravo, Google’s Android operating system is an impressive rival to Apple’s iPhoneOS. While it hasn’t got the quantity of available apps – only 24,800 – almost all the top-used iPhone apps are available on Android. The only thing I wish my Nexus could do is listen to Audible books, which is likely to be supported early this year. Google is the only company with the resources, finesse and reputation to make a product that can take on the iLove that Apple has. Google is massive, it’s everywhere and for the most part, everyone loves it. And we love Google not because of its marketing efforts – Apple reigns the marketing world – but because of its simple, open, friendly deliver-what-the-user-wants philosophy.
Android’s a great platform for tablet-style devices because, like the iPhoneOS, it’s designed with fingers in mind. Unlike Windows Mobile, it doesn’t require a stylus for using tiny menus and buttons. Unlike Windows 7, it’s not bloated and resource-intensive (despite Win7’s huge advances in those areas over previous versoins). And most importantly, apps developed for Android share its finger-friendly interface.
There are no tablets running Android yet, but a lot are being developed. Perhaps the big weakness with Google’s open philosophy is that too often the hardware companies will let them down. For example, HP is making a version of the Slate for Android – but they’re building a keyboard onto it. That’s not a tablet, HP, that’s a netbook. However companies like Acer, Asus, HTC and Dell have some very worthy looking devices, most tipped for release this year. They range from stupidly small (the Dell Mini 5 has a 5” screen, half that of the iPad and only 1.3” bigger than my phone) to the same as the iPad (10”). Perhaps the most highly anticipated will be from MSI, with a much more powerful processor and graphics capabilities than the iPad for a similar price.
What I’d love to see, though, is Google teaming up with Amazon to create a colour Kindle-style device based on Android. The device would be able to play video, multi-task, have a camera and integrate with Amazon’s ebook store.
It will be interesting to see how the future plays out with Apple and Google, I think these two companies will revolutionise how we interact with information and the world around us. Tech site Gizmodo recently did a comparison of the Apple, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo empires, illustrating how many markets those companies are in competition with each other. Both Apple and Google are innovative, have good brand recognition and have products that are ubiquitous and high
Will I buy an iPad?
No. I’m a gadget freak, a geek, a nerd but most importantly I’m a tinkerer. I like going outside the mainstream and pushing the boundaries. Apple won’t let me do that. I completely agree with tech personality and Google FanGirlGina Trapani who said “iPhone’s for Sheep; Android’s for Geeks”.
When iPhoneOS is available on hardware made by other manufacturers, allows multitasking and allows me to get apps that Apple hasn’t approved, then I’ll consider it.
But I can can see why other people will buy it. And I’m glad Apple’s bringing portable, flat, paper-like devices a step closer. In fact, that’s why I want the iPad to sell really well. If the iPad takes off, and all the other companies start thinking “Wow, we need to get in on that action” – the technology will advance dramatically, the price will drop, and we’ll start seeing some really cool stuff.