Apple saves children from horrible foul language

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

Screenshot of iTunes, with "bonking" censored

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:

noun /bäNGk/
bonks, plural

  • An act of knocking or hitting something that causes a reverberating sound
    • – give it a bonk with a hammer
  • A reverberating sound caused in such a way

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

An Alarming Tale

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.

Bad Astronomy is Actually Good Astronomy

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!

   

The Problem of Authority

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.

The PowerBalance Scam

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?

Getting Cluey About Elections

“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.”

That’s what a friend of mine said during a Facebook conversation in response to the Just Plain Stupid comments about paid parental leave from Family First Senator Steve Fielding. I can totally understand my friend’s feelings, as neither major party seems a good choice right now. On the one hand, the incumbent Labor Party has failed to achieve many of it’s core election promises, not least of which was action on climate change. Even scarier, the Liberal opposition is a rag-tag basket-case of climate change deniers, xenophobes and far-right dinosaurs. But to give up on the election all together is, I think, the wrong sentiment. This election is not without hope – but it’s up to voters to seize the opportunity and wield the only power they have on election day. To vote with their conscience and their brains.
It’s all too easy, however, to take the easy way out on election day. Most people, I think, decide who they want to vote for – Labor, Liberal, perhaps Greens – and follow the instructions on that party’s how-to-vote card, voting above the line. This is a dangerous method, because deals made between parties for preferences won’t always go your way. Consider the Family First Party in the 2004 Federal election. The Labor Party, so afraid of a growing support among the electorate for The Greens, put Family First well ahead of The Greens in their preferences. This meant that everyone who voted for Labor helped Steve Fielding get a senate seat, despite winning only 0.08% of the primary votes. Is that true democracy?
So the solution, surely, is to disregard the preference deals and vote below the line, according to your own beliefs. But you have to put a vote for every single candidate, whether you’ve heard of them or not! And if you stuff the counting up, your vote is void! That’s where Cluey Voter comes in. Alan Noble, Director of Engineering at Google Australia, developed the site in his free time for the South Australian state election in March. It provides a list of all the candidates, and a drop-down box next to each one with five options. You can choose “Support a lot”, “Support a little”, “Don’t Care”, “Against a little” or “Against a lot”. The default for all candidates is “Don’t Care”, so if you don’t know about a party you don’t have to change it.
 

Once you’ve told it your preferences, Cluey Voter will automatically generate a printable sheet that looks like the ballot paper. You can adjust the numbers if you like, and press the “Check Numbering” button to make sure you haven’t doubled anything, and then print off the page. Then when you vote, you just copy the numbers into your ballot paper and now your vote really does represent your views.
 

Cluey Voter has only been done for the SA election so far, but I really hope it’s implemented for the Federal Election. It’s the sort of tool that could really make voting easier – especially for political junkies like me, who always vote below the line!

Office software you can afford

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?

OOo app chooserOf 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.