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Maker Faire Highlights: Making Music the Hard Way

I just got back from Maker Faire in San Mateo, California, a two-day event where hackers, modders, makers, and inventors (I could go on) converged to show off their homemade projects. Inside the main expo hall, DIY synthesizers filled the air with sound - all sorts of blips, bleeps, and buzzes. But of all the musical projects, there were two that really caught my eye (and ear).

The Guitar Zeros are just what they sound like: a real band with zero guitars. Instead, they play using modified controllers from the video game Guitar Hero. The game itself is beyond popular (it raked in more than a billion dollars in sales last year) with wannabe rockstars (like me and my roommates) frantically mashing fret-buttons in living rooms and bars around the country. But tapping along to scrolling dots is different than actually creating music in a band.

The Guitar Zeros are not exactly the first to modify a toy guitar- check out Gizmodo's gallery of "circuit bending" videos- but they manage to turn the plastic axes into usable instruments that can create listenable music. Check out the video below for some of their performance and explanation of how the system works.

My other favorite musical-mod was Andrew Turley's MIDI microfiche reader. It's a great example of a simple but unique idea. Turley uses a photodiode to map dark and light areas of a microfiche to high and low notes. He even added some additional controls allow him to select the key and range of the device. Check it out:

Green Car Designers Ditch Big Companies for Startups

Not only are there a lot of startup companies developing and building innovative fuel-efficient vehicles, but top designers and engineers are leaving the big auto companies to manage those efforts. Thatâ''s the main message of an article about new green car companies, appearing in the The Wall Street Journal today, May 6.

Among those who have left the mainstream for the vehicular counter-culture: Henrik Fisker, a former design director at Ford, who now heads a California company, Fisker Automotive, which is developing a plug-in hybrid sports car; Gordon Murray, former technical director at McLaren, has a new company, Gordon Murray Design, which is using skills honed on racing and sports cars to make a new little city car. Murat Guenak, former head of design for Volkswagen, has joined Mindset AG in Swizterland, to work on hybrids.

Speaking of hybrids, a Journal article that appeared last Friday discusses the problems electric utilities face if plug-in hybrids really take off. Basically executives are brooding about whether owners will charge their cars at night, when electricity is cheap and plentiful, or whether it will be during the day. Smart metering will help, which puts California ahead of this game. The stateâ''s three big electricity distributors expect virtually all customers to have meters within a few years that will enable them, in effect, to tell their suppliers when theyâ''re using electricity and what theyâ''re using it for. San Diego Power & Light already has set up a rate plan that enables customers to charge their cars at half the daytime electricity price.

Anthony Pellicano - Smooth Operator

As we ease into an era of Internet telephony, is it getting easier to wiretap a phone? Frankly, it seems like it just couldnâ''t get any easier. Thatâ''s the lesson that comes out of a star-studded, revelation-filled court case in Los Angeles.

Itâ''s the trial of Anthony Pellicano and four other defendants, accused of 79 counts of wiretapping, and it included enough Hollywood names to start a new studio. Among them: Silvester Stallone; the comedians Garry Shandling and Kevin Nealon; superagent Michael Ovitz; TV executive Brad Grey; John McTiernan, director of the Die Hard movies; and Michael Nathanson, one-time head of MGM.

But itâ''s the sordid technology-related details of the trial that interest David Halbfinger, as he details in an article in todayâ''s New York Times.

Wiretapping is really, really easy. And not just for the government. Anyone sitting in on the Pellicano trial (and staying awake during the telecom testimony) could walk away ready to intercept phone calls after a quick stop at RadioShack for less than $50 in equipment.

Instead of bugging phones the old-fashioned way, Pellicano and his operatives broke into those metalic green-gray neighborhood phone boxes you see on streetcorners, and sometimes into telephone company central offices themselves. They essentially made conference calls out of the conversations of the people they were wiretapping, and recorded their end of the calls "on Macintosh computers."

It all sounds a bit like the wiretapping done in Greece during the 2004 Athens Olympics. That too was a star-studded scandal, though instead of actors and agents the dramatis personÿ were politicians at the highest levels of government. There were some other differences. For one thing, the Athens affair was of cellphones, while cellular lines were just what Pellicano wasnâ''t able to tap into. And the Athens telephonic break-in was a masterful hack, while it hardly took more than a pair of alligator clips and a smooth voice to do what Pellicano and company did.

Every phone company service technician is given copies of two keys that can open nearly all of Southern Californiaâ''s b-boxes, and retired technicians apparently keep them. Many boxes are not locked at all. Central offices, which can be entered by technicians at all hours, are also often unsupervised.

Prosecutors say a field technician from SBC Communications (now AT&T), Rayford Turner, who was a bit of a ladiesâ'' man, prevailed upon a small group of middle-age female SBC dispatchers to give him whatever data he requested: toll records, cable pairs, names, phone numbers and so on. They continued to do so long after he retired.

Wiretapping gets easier and easier from the governmentâ''s point of view as well. In compliance with the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA, the phone companies opened up their networks to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Additional switches at telephone company central offices allow wiretaps to be conducted electronically, without cumbersome and time-consuming visits to telephone company equipment facilities. Oddly enough, Pellicano had much the same access to one key central office:

But when the phone to be tapped was near Mr. Pellicanoâ''s offices â'' say, on Rodeo Drive â'' the detection became easier. Prosecutors say a special set of undocumented phone lines ran directly from the mainframe of the phone companyâ''s Beverly Hills central office to a phone closet across the hall from the entrance to Mr. Pellicanoâ''s offices and then to a bank of computers in a locked â''war roomâ'' inside. These lines allowed Mr. Pellicano to monitor calls across Beverly Hills without even stepping outside.

The lesson from all this is that the telephone system is pretty porous. Law enforcement, intelligence agencies, phone company executives, and even retired techniciansâ''as well as private detectives, of courseâ''can monitor and record your phone conversations at will.

Ironically, although CALEA now covers Internet-based telephony, one way to protect the privacy of calls is to use Skype, which automatically encrypts the digital voice stream. As was widely reported at the time, German authorities failed to crack the encryption last year, though they have, apparently, not given up.

Hymotion Launches (more) Affordable Plug-In Hybrid Conversion


It never rains but it pours, as they say. No sooner had our feature on the Sawyer family's plug-in Prius hit your screens (and mailboxes) than fast-breaking news overtook us: Hymotion announced a plug-in hybrid conversion kit for less than $10 000.

The company is now called A123 Hymotion, to reflect its purchase by battery maker A123 Systems. Their new L5 Plug-In Conversion Module supplements the Prius's stock 1.3-kWh nickel-metal-hydride battery pack with a 5-kWh pack based on A123's iron-nanophosphate lithium-ion cells.

Several features distinguish this kit from others now being offered, including the Sawyers' conversion, performed by Hybrids Plus of Boulder, Colorado. For one thing, it's been engineered and crash-tested to meet all applicable Federal new-car safety standards. For another, the converted car meets new-car emissions standards--which not every plug-in conversion does, including earlier versions of Hymotion's own kit.

And finally, it costs a lot less than the Sawyer family's conversion did: They paid Hybrids Plus $30,000 for a "PHEV-30," meaning their plug-in gets roughly 30 miles of pure electric range from its 4.5-kWh replacement pack plus another 4.5-kWh auxiliary pack. Those packs, by the way, also use A123's cells. Hymotion, on the other hand, quotes 30 to 40 miles of "electrically assisted" range for a third of that: $9,995.

Left unspecified, however, is the distance that the Hymotion kit will run in pure electric mode, without switching on the internal-combustion engine. The answer, as always, lies in the car's duty cycle: how heavily it's loaded, how agressively it's driven, the mix of speeds, and even such factors as how many hills it climbs.

We'll leave it to road testers to offer their real-world experience. And no doubt the highly active PHEV community will weigh in, from the always-energetic Felix Kramer at CalCars to the many members of the Electric Auto Association's very active PHEV mailing list.

After you read the feature on the Sawyers' car, by the way, check out both the audio slideshow on the conversion steps (my first audio slideshow) and the web-only summary of automakers' plans to introduce production versions of plug-in hybrids.

Town Leveled by Tornado Puts Green into Greensburg

A year ago yesterday, May 4, a maximum strength tornado with winds raging at 300 mph demolished the town of Greensburg, Kansas, killing 11. Organizations like Environmental Defense soon sought, somewhat dubiously, to make the name Greensburg a posterboard example, with Hurricane Katrina, for the increasingly frequent and violent storms expected to result from global warming. Maybe more credibly, the residents and friends of Greensburg now are seeking to make the townâ''s name synonymous with green, environmentally conscious design.

Residents of the town, 95 percent destroyed last year, are trying to make each new private and public building as energy-efficient, conserving, and environment-friendly as possible by drawing on renewable energy, conserving energy, and recycling wastes. Solar panels and geothermal pumps are among the technologies being deployed, and the intention is for new buildings to conform to the U.S. Green Building Council's platinum rating.

Meanwhile, 14 Kansas State architecture students have offered their support by designing a group of green â''cubesâ''â''a system for capturing and recycling water, for exampleâ''and delivering them to the town May 4.

Speaking at the townâ''s high school graduation ceremony yesterday, President Bush hailed the town for envisioning â''a future where new jobs flourish, where every public building meets the highest environmental standards, and where the beauty of rural America meets the great possibilities of new technology.â''

No doubt, planning a green future is paying off for Greensburg, and probably not just in reduced utility and home heating bills. Its efforts have been publicized on the leading U.S. television networks and in Britainâ''s Guardian. In June, Discoveryâ''s new green channel will feature Greensburg in a series produced by Leonardio DiCaprio.

Weaponized Robot Spiders

This week, Wired's Danger Room blog has been running a short series on the bugbots, BAE's creepy anime robo-spiders that now occupy all the available space in my nightmares. Thanks, BAE, for capitalizing on my loathing of spiders.

I'm all itchy now.

Even More Cooperation is Needed in Nanotoxicology Research

I just saw the latest press release from the International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON) based at Rice University.

The announcement details the publishing of findings from two workshops held in January and June of 2007. The press release contains realistic comments from Dr. Vicki Colvin, executive director of ICON and professor of chemistry and chemical engineering at Rice University, that will likely send shivers up the spines of outraged environmental activists such as, â''Our â''grand challengeâ'' â'' producing computational models that predict interactions of engineered nanoparticles with organisms â'' will take some time, perhaps 10 years.â''

But the press release is also peppered with terms like: international workshops, unprecedented international collaboration, the diversity of participants, and international scope.

I have gone through the site to see the list of the 70 representatives to get a sense of this international scope, and I couldnâ''t seem to navigate to it. The best I could find was the Steering Committee.

From this list I could see they tried to hit upon the major targets, albeit it from a slightly more US-centric perspective than all the â''internationalâ'' talk may lead you to believe.

Although the â''Linksâ'' page brings you to all the other international working groups looking at the toxicology of nanoparticles, it isnâ''t clear to me, at least through the website, what sort of cooperative arrangements they have with these other groups.

While it is good to see that everyone is trying to take some role in tackling this issue, it would be preferable to see an even higher level of cooperation and coordination among all these groups. Just off the top of my head, I know there is Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM International) all trying to be universal and comprehensive in their approach to figuring out the EHS issues of nanoparticles.

This seems all a bit fragmented to me. Maybe someone can enlighten me on how all these groups are working in coordinated fashion and there is no unnecessary overalap in their work, so that we can arrive at some more conclusive data on the toxicology of nanoparticles.

More cool stuff from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center

Yesterday I blogged about a few of the cool innovations presented by Xerox researchers at a show-and-tell for the press held Monday and Tuesday at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Parc). I have to confess, when I first saw my schedule (each journalist went through the demos in a slightly different order, so we didnâ''t crowd together), I suppressed a groan. My morning demos were mostly projects involving document handling, technology targeted at big business applications and not something I thought would be at all interesting.

But I was wrong. Hereâ''s what the future of documents looks like:

Hybrid categorization. Not a great name, maybe the marketing folks will come up with something better when this gets out of the laboratory, but something Iâ''d like to use right now. The idea is that categorization software looks at both images and text around the images to figure out what the document is about. In an office environment, the software could automatically tag and file scanned documents it identifies as particular types of documents, like specific forms. Thatâ''s not what got me. But the researchers demoâ''d their software processing a set of vacation photos. It tagged one photo as â''view, mountain, city,â'' then found similar photos online. By looking at the narratives around those similar photos, it went on to tag the photos Cuzco and Peru. It then distributed that photo and other ones from same trip into a blog entry, placing them appropriately near related text (at the beach, that night, an incredible sunset). Wow. If I could upload my photos to an online service, get them all tagged, and then zapped off to a personal blog, well, that would go a long way towards dealing with the gigabytes full of unlabeled image files sitting on my hard drive. Xerox is currently focused on developing the software as a business package; I think they could spin it out as a Web 2.0 company right now.

The seamless document viewer. A little better name, this Java-based technology is being developed at the FX Palo Alto Laboratory,

a research group owned by the joint venture Fuji Xerox, located just down the road from Xerox Parc. The software is intended to make viewing large documents on small smart-phone screens a lot easier with intelligent zoom (it zooms out to display sections of documents with photos, zooms in on text youâ''re trying to read, tags sections to let you browse through by keyword, and zones and numbers the document to let you select regions with the phone keypad). It did seem easier to navigate a document, though I still canâ''t see me doing much reading on a small phone screen.

Document Product Visualization and Digital Customized Packaging. These names, these names. If youâ''ve got better ideas, please comment below and Iâ''ll forward your suggestions to Xerox. Anyway, the idea is great; itâ''s layout software that lets you fold the document onscreen, to make a brochure, or a box, or complicated 3-D object. Having tried to do theater programs and tri-fold invites with standard layout software, printing countless test versions and finding out that I just didnâ''t position things correctly, I do need this product! Again, Xerox is thinking of marketing it to large businesses or print shops that do custom printing, Iâ''m thinking thereâ''s room for a â''liteâ'' version for the consumer market. The video above demonstrates a greeting card designed using the software.

Solid ink. This isnâ''t a new technology, it came out of Tektronix in the 80s and was IMG_1945.JPG

acquired by Xerox; the novelty being demonstrated this week was a new, smaller, print head that will allow solid ink to be used in more diverse printers. And the message these days is a little new; when Tektronix first brought out the technology it was all about the amazing color; these days, itâ''s about the environmentâ''thereâ''s no ink cartridge to dispose of, the block of ink simply melts away. The company says the process generates 90 percent less waste (thereâ''s still a little packaging around the ink for shipping it, but not much). Thatâ''d be a lot less trips to the recycling center for me.

April Figures Confirm Sharp Drop in Gas Guzzler Sales

Data released yesterday, May 1, confirm earlier indications that sky-high gasoline prices are finally beginning to have a distinct impact on consumer behavior. Total U.S. auto sales in April were at their lowest level in 15 years, with sales of SUVs down drastically but subcompacts like Chevroletâ''s Malibu up 43 percent and Fordâ''s Focus up 32 percent. Sales of Toyotaâ''s hybrid, the Prius, climbed 54 percentâ''the biggest increase among the 15 most popular vehicles highlighted by The New York Times.

The U.S. big three manufacturers all registered double-digit sales declines, while Honda, Nissan, and Toyota came close to holding sales flat.

Inside Xerox Parc 2008

Things have changed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Gone are the beanbag chairs that furnished the conference room back in the 70s; gone are the researchers that created the graphical user interface, the Ethernet, the laser printer, and other computing innovations we take for granted today. But these famous halls of innovation are not just populated with ghosts from a glorious past, though they did bring back memories; my colleague Paul Wallich and I were among the first journalists to write Parcâ''s story in the early 80s. There is some pretty cool stuff going on right now.

Xerox opened Parcâ''s doors to journalists on Monday and Tuesday this week and brought its researchersâ''and those of sibling research centers, like Fuji Xeroxâ''s FX Palo Alto Laboratory, Xerox Research Centre Europe, and Israelâ''s XMPIEâ''out for show and tell. Some were demonstrating products just reaching the marketplace; others earlier stage research that could become business or consumer products some day. Some of my favorites:

Erasable paper. Like most people, my office is anything but paperless. I print out interview notes, emails, web pages, and countless rough drafts, often needing the documents for just a few hours before tossing the pages into the recycling bin. IMG_1951.JPG

Unfortunately, toggling back and forth between all these documents on the screen just doesnâ''t work. So the idea of completely reusable paper definitely appealed to me. Parcâ''s reusable paper doesnâ''t even need ink. Instead, the paper is chemically treatedâ''but feels just like ordinary printer paperâ''to be sensitive to a specific wavelength of light. The printer simply writes the image in light. The image starts to fade in several hours, and is completely gone in 24; the photo shows the image after several hours of fading and as just printed from a high-speed printer; standard-speed printers will generate darker images. Researchers say that cost of the paper will be three to five times the cost of normal printer paper; the printer itself will cost several hundred dollars, and will be intended as a second printer for homes and offices. The prototype paper is yellow, not because of the chemical coating, but to distinguish it from ordinary paper and prevent users from accidentally printing archival documents in disappearing â''inkâ''.

An adaptation of ink-jet printing intended to replace screen printing of conductive grid-lines for silicon solar cells. Researchers say the change, which makes grid lines

tall and fat instead of thin and wide, improves solar cell efficiency by six percent. Xerox Parc plans to spin out a company, tentatively name Sunlyne, later this year to commercialize the technology.

A water purification system that evolved from research done in manipulating fine particles for laser printing. This purely mechanical system shifts particles to one part of a stream of water, and then splits the stream into two paths, one for clean water, one for dirty water. Researchers expect that, in a couple of years, municipal water treatment plants will be able to use the technology to process significantly more water with less chemicals and without increasing the size of the treatment plant.

IMG_1948.JPGA medical diagnosis technique, also coming out of laser printing, which can find cancer cells in a blood sample much more effectively than current technology. The researchers expect to apply the technique, which uses a scanning laser and a fiber optic bundle to detect fluorescence from tagged cells, to prenatal diagnostics, eventually replacing the invasive amniocentesis with a simple maternal blood test.

More tomorrow.


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