Things, stuff, and other items of interest

February 16, 2010

Paranoid delusions on a global scale - or - Part cheeks gently, insert cranium

   With this post, I'm going to take things in a slightly different direction in terms of our usual fare. Anyone who's been reading this site with any regularity will know I have something of a rather spastic attention span. There is no unifying theme that drives this site other than the detritus that emerges from my grey matter like so much municipal sewage into the Ottawa river. That's not likely going to change any time soon, (the website theme or the sewage spills) I still fully expect the scatter-brained approach will continue as before, (again, regarding the website & sewage spills equally) but the range over which that brain will be scattered is going to widen slightly. With this in mind, let us proceed.

In case you missed it, both BoingBoing & Wired ran stories today in honour of the thirty-second birthday of the very first online Bulletin Board System, started back in 1978 by Ward Christensen and Randy Suess in Chicago. This may not mean sweet-bugger-all to most of you, but to those of us who cut our teeth on three hundred baud/bps modems and acoustic couplers this day takes us back to a time when the nerds rolled down that old information highway in style. Or at least, as much style as our pocket protectors and taped up glasses would afford us. Kudos to you lads, thanks for blazing that path where so many now follow.

Things have changed a tad since then of course. These days, all you youngsters go jibber-jabbering about with your social media shenanigans, your blog-o-spheres, your twitter thingies, and your facebook nonsense. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who gets a little overwhelmed occasionally by the incessant influx of the latest and greatest means of communicating. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of 'social media', as evidenced by the fact that this is my site you're currently reading. I'm on Twitter and I use it regularly, I check in on Facebook multiple times a week, and at one point I installed Foursquare on my phone for a whole day before I decided I wasn't quite that desperate for external validation. Why I even went so far as to check out Google's latest foray into the social-savy web 2.0 hipsters crowd: "Google Buzz". Fascinating, powerful, arguably the single worst product launch Google has ever had. The only way this could have been a bigger disaster would have been to have Stephane Dion show up and endorse it's low carbon footprint, while Stockwell Day roared around in a wetsuit on an electric sea-doo with a Google Buzz banner flying behind him.

From three hundred baud modems and dial-up BBSs,  to augmented reality and instant global communication, that's a hell of a jump, even more so when you consider the time line involved. Unfortunately, it's not all T1 connections and internet memes though, there are some very real problems that spring up as a result of such rapid progress. Society, culture and the laws that govern them end up lagging behind the ceaseless march of technology, and are forced to play a never ending game of catch-up. This is not a small task by any measure. I could try to wax poetic on the just how important open and free communication is, on how this is a seminal point in communication history. I could make reference to the impact of  previous turning points in history where communication norms were turned on their head, and how that affected the balance of power, culture, religion, society as a whole. The printing press, radio, telelphones, television, it's not over stating the case to say that these technologies and how they were applied changed the course of history. I could wax poetic on all of these things,... or I could offer up examples of others who already have, much better than I ever could:

I find it's often the case that with the 'oh-my-god-the-sky-is-falling-we-need-to-rally-and-hold-a-non-violent-sit-in-protest-immediately' crowd that it's easy to get caught up in the cheering & chanting without actually having a firm understanding of the fundamentals. So as to avoid that here, we'll take a definition from the guy who invented the world wide web:

Net neutrality is this:
If I pay to connect to the net with a given quality of service, and you pay to connect to the net with the same or higher quality of service then you and I can communicate across the net with that quality of service.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee
Inventor of the World Wide Web
Here's another definition from Canada's internet equivalent of the Lone Ranger:

Net Neutrality in Canada is the principle that consumers should control of what content, services and applications they use on the public Internet.
It's a simple concept that has wide-ranging implications on how the Internet operates.
He's kind of like the David Suzuki of Net Neutrality and Canadian Copyright, only our government doesn't completely ignore him. On the contrary actually. Though I doubt he'll be receiving any invitations to dinner at Twenty-Four Sussex any time soon.

I'm a little behind the times in bringing up the net neutrality issue now. At one point, among the geek chic crowd, this topic was quite en vogue. Geek activists got their hackles up, websites were launched, facebook groups were started, emails were sent by the tens.... maybe even hundreds. It's still on the radar, but it's not quite occupying the limelight as much as it did. Why bother bringing it up now? Well, mostly because this is an issue that wasn't really resolved. Oh, yes yes I know the CRTC issued a ruling last fall that directly addressed this issue offering appeasements to both sides while satisfying neither. To be honest, while I wasn't thrilled with the decision in it's entirety, it went further than I expected it to and so had some hope that the CRTC was taking the issue seriously. Problem solved right? Ya,... not so much.

Ok, so the geeks aren't entirely satisfied. Boohoo. What's the worst that's going to happen? They'll throw twenty sided dice at us? The assumption is that big business is going to hustle, bully, bribe & bullshit their agenda through the door eventually right? Beats me. I'm no fortune teller, I can't see the future. I sincerely hope not, if that helps at all. Hard though it may be to believe, it's not actually anything going on up here in the great white north that has me bordering on full-fledged paranoid delusions. Don't get me wrong, we have our problems, and we need to address them post haste, but it could be a lot worse..... we could live in.... Australia!

Surprise! You thought I was going to pull out some hell-hole of a country out of my hat didn't you? Some radical dictatorship where the lunatic fringe holds the reigns of power and force their citizens to sing the praises of the glorious leader through two tin cups tied together with string. Nope. I'm talking about Australia. Democratic, common-wealth member, previously-freedom-loving Australia. The Australian government has decided to implement a nation wide internet filter. They aren't the first to tread this path of course... the governments of China & Iran have already done the initial research for them, so they should save a bundle there. Now I'll be honest here, and be the first to admit I don't understand everything that's involved with this one. I would dearly love to hear from someone with some more information, because it seems like a hard bit of barbecued shrimp to swallow. It would seem I'm not the only one that has some concerns on the matter.  In trying to do some research on this topic, one is quickly left with the impression that just about no media source anywhere has anything nice to say about politics in Australia. Thankfully though, you'll all be happy to hear that it seems the story about the Australian government demanding big breasted porn stars was bullshit. CRIKEY!

Add to the global net neutrality concerns some positively draconian three-strike rules that are currently being considered with favour in the UK & US among other countries as part of ACTA & CETA negotiations and you can forgive a geek for going into a panic over phantom heart palpitations. In the days to come, I'll try to put together a post or two about the following:
  • Online privacy
  • Net Neutrality in Canada
  • The on going ACTA & CETA negotiations
More to the point, I'll try to stress the points of why you should care about these issues, and what sort of impact you can expect from them. I should take this opportunity to point out that any information beyond my usual incessant prattle will largely be taken from the following websites:
Professor Michael Geist's Blog
The Electronic Frontier Foundation
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner Blog
As well as the usual mash up of techie sites and geek blogs. I would urge you to check out these sites for yourself, as I will inevitably do a poorer job of communicating / recycling the information that you can find first hand at these sites.

In an attempt to finish on an high note, you may have heard in the news about some gentlemen who have had the idea of establishing a "neutral territory" for investigative journalists. A type of safe haven if you will. Borrowing the best ideas of freedom of the press and localising it in an effort to ensure it's safety. A lovely idea, though I have my doubts about how effective it would be. I've been accused of being a cynic before though, so you never know. Why not hear their idea direct from the source? Fair warning, it's a little long as this is only the first of 7 parts, but worth a listen if you're so inclined.

February 4, 2010

Geek Toy Fever, Yo-yo's, and YouTube disasters

Looking back on it now, I guess it started when I was pretty young. It's an addiction of sorts, of course; oh it's not as destructive as alcoholism, gambling or snorting blow, but it still exacts a heavy price. The term "social pariah" springs to mind. Naturally, I'm talking about "Geek Toy Fever".
I can't be sure of the exact date, but I remember this much,... I was a kid, and my folks were in the kitchen back home. My Pop had just come up from the cellar, and he was fiddling with something that I couldn't quite make out, a little round wooden device of some sort. Then he said those magic words:
"This used to belong to your Grandfather."
Or something like that anyhow. I didn't have a clue what it was, or what it was supposed to do, but right then and there was the beginning of a life long love affair. My Dad had found my Grandfather's yo-yo. After cleaning it up a bit and putting a new string on it, he gave it a test run. He proceeded to make that little gizmo dance like nothing I had ever seen before, and that's all it took. I was hooked. String + axle + two wooden disks = pure joy. A little centrifugal force, a string, and a good flick of the wrist and you're good to go.

As the I've grown older, my obsession enthusiastic interest in yo-yo's hasn't waned. I like the idea that this is a toy that my Grandfather used to fool around with. It's portable, it's simple, and yet at the same time it can be quite complicated if you practice enough. It's a rare occasion that I walk out of a toy store without having purchased some sort of yo-yo paraphernalia. The problem with this is that toy stores are seldom dedicated solely to the marvelous wonder that is the common yo-yo. Combine this fact with my fascination with all things shiny and useless, and you have the makings for a toy collection that is certainly a lot of fun, and on occasion slightly embarrassing.
"Helllllooooo Ladies! Can I show you my yo-yo collection?"
Rest assured, there's a reason this line isn't included in the prologue of the Kama Sutra's original printing. So allow me to throw my pride and any social aspirations I may have had out the window while I present my meager collection of geek toys.

#1 - The Rubik's 360

Received as a Christmas gift from my Ma after she spotted a tweet on this very website. Who said cyber-stalking doesn't have any perks? You guys thought all those "Hi Mom" & "The only person reading this is my Mom" lines were just jokes eh? Nuh-uh. Not so much.

#2 - The Rubik's Magic Puzzle

I think this was another Christmas gift. I've had this for years, got it when I was much younger. No idea who it was from. Someone with impeccable taste obviously. It's old enough now that the nylon wires that criss cross the squares creak and moan like an old rocking chair when you fold it. As with most Rubik's puzzles, this thing is a lot of fun.

#3 - The Loop

I have no idea where this one came from.What it's official name is, who made it, or why... no clue. It's a little infuriating because it seems like it should be trick worthy, but I've certainly never pulled it off. I had an opportunity to perform in front of an audience with this thing once. Very enthusiastic audience, if deliberately misguided. It would have ended much worse if everyone involved hadn't been piss drunk.

Here then, for the first time ever... is a YouTube clip of a sober me failing miserably to get this thing to work.

#4 - Horse Shoe Puzzles

Again, I have no idea what these things are called other than "puzzles". My grandpa used to have a bunch of these all made out of old horse shoes. Great fun if you can solve them, concentrated annoyance if you can't. Note the "after" picture only has two of the puzzles solved, that one in the bottom right has irritated the shit out of me for years now.

#5 - Spin Out 

Heads up computer nerds, this one's for you. If you look closely, and read the description in the link above, you'll notice a distinct logic gate approach to this one. Ah flash backs to the intimidating Professor Dworshak from the 'gonq. Hands down the best math prof I've ever had. (With apologies to Mr. Boyko).

I think this may have been another Christmas gift from when I was a kid. A nerdy kid obviously, but a kid all the same.

#6 - The Rubik's Cube

It is with great shame that I admit publicly that I have never once solved a Rubik's cube. I have wasted hours on end trying to figure out the mathematical enigma that is that little cubed piece of irritation, but all for naught. I have cousin who's the same age as I am who could solve these things in seconds. Watching him go was like watching a magic show. His folks used to operate their very own toy store so I guess he sort of had the inside track. It never failed to impress me.... still does for that matter.

Pictured here, my old faithful "portable migraine", and my newly acquired Ottawa Senators cube. I won't be messing that one up until I figure out the first one.

#7 - Nerf Boomerang

Not sure how geeky this one is since it implies physical activity. Thankfully though, this thing is a nerf product so mostly safe for indoor use... hell, you can even do it while sprawled out in front of the television. So really, the physical activity isn't strictly required for this one. Couch potatoes rejoice!

If memory serves, I spotted this at a stand in a mall somewhere. Looked neat so I bought it. My god-kids freaking LOVE this thing.

#8 - Astro Jax

Ya... astro jax. Three rubber balls on a string. Check out the link listed above. Young, hip active people looking cool and being groovy with the ultra-slick astro jax.

These things are totally useless. So naturally I bought a second set that light up in the dark. A poor replacement for a yo-yo, but they are oddly fun all the same. They come with a little booklet of tricks that a six handed uber-mensch couldn't pull off if he had magical powers and the ability to stop time. The will serve as a rudimentary non-lethal weapon in a pinch though.

#9 - Yo-Yo's

A sampling from my yo-yo collection. That's most of it actually, only missing a few. Yo-Yo Classic, IOmega, Fast Eddie's, Rainbow Hardwood Yo-yo, Weighted Axle spinners, Duncan Yo-yos, and even a Lee Valley do-it-yourselfer. Bar none, my favourite toy of all time. 

#10 - Shoot-a-Loop

This one was a gift from my brother, not sure if it was birthday or Christmas. The concept is simple enough. Toss a marble in on the bottom, pull back on the spring hammer thingy, let loose and see how far it flies. Ridiculously entertaining. You can see it in action here:

#11 - Juggling Balls
What self respecting geek can't juggle?

#12 - Cartesian Hook Diver
This one is just down right cool. What kind of geek doesn't get hyped up over a science toy? Water & Air pressure physics + 2 litre pop bottle + water = nerd joy.

My Pop found this one at Lee Valley not long ago and picked it up. I've since gone back and bought several more kits to give away to some kids I know. Once again, a pitiful YouTube clip of this one in action:

Et Voila! There you have it folks. I'm sure I've left some out that are lying around here. I may do a follow up post later with others that didn't make it into this list. There certainly isn't any shortage of choice. If you have any old-time favourites that I missed you think are worth a look, please post a comment with a link. I'm always on the look out for worthy additions.