3D Printable Food

Looks like a good day for alternative food news.  This one is a little less soylent green but a little more dystopian in nature. Anjan Contractor has recently been awarded a NASA grant to develop a 3d printer capable of printing food.

The basic idea seems to be to build a 3d printer that, instead of using plastics, uses food powders consisting of various nutritional elements to make edible… substances.  Carpenter describes "printing” a pizza, mixing powders with water and oil to make the tomato sauce, and cooking the dough of the base as it is laid down.

It’s an interesting idea and given the long life-span of the powders used (30+ years on the shelf) NASA is understandably interested in the possibility of using this technology for long-term space missions, such as any mission to a more distant planetoid in the system than the moon.  Carpenter however is even more ambitious than that.  Environmentalists and welfare advocates have been warning us for years now that the current problems with world hunger is only going to get worse as our world population grows.  Using our current farming techniques, it does seem infeasible that we will be able to feed 12 billion or more people. Carpenter suggests that this technology may help us end world hunger.

I’m not certain I’m looking forward to a world where a good hamburger is replaced with soy-based protein powder assembled in patty shape… and there is nothing to indicate what this will taste like.  I can’t help but wonder however if this is possibly the future.



Nintendo dislikes “strange” relationships

An interesting story coming out of the Register and from Kotaku this week, apparently a new Tamogatchi game, which is Nintendo’s answer to the Sims, allowed gay relationships, marriage and children – at least, gay relationships between men in anycase.

Despite making a lot of noise, most of it positive, this “feature’ has been removed in an update patch as a bug, stating (depending on your translation) that it removes “Human relations that have become strange/funny”.  Nintendo have stated categorically that this was a bug, and never and intended feature.

This will no doubt be disappointing for anyone who bought the game with this in mind, and i’m sure there will be some. It’s disappointing in general to see a company as influential as Nintendo taking this sort of stance – particularly given that very mainstream games such as The Sims, Mass Effect, Dragons Age and Fable have all featured gay relationship options in their various romance segments.


Scribd get greedy

The other day I was looking about the net for a couple of free books that I knew were around somewhere.  I had copies backed up somewhere on my file server, but I had a pretty good idea of where to find them on the net and downloading only takes a moment, so it just seemed simpler to do it that way.  I’m lazy like that.

The books in question? A series of non-fiction on writing, written by S.L. Viehl.  She has written an excellent series that includes some planning worksheets that i’ve found useful in the past and kindly made them available free online.

I tracked them down on Scribd, where they have always lived, and was quite surprised to find I couldn’t download them. Apparently their policies have changed and in order to download, i’d have to pay a fee.  I could still read online however.  This was annoying, but I still had copies somewhere on my server, and – as it turns out – my own transcribed copies of the worksheets anyway.  I shrugged and went about my business.

A few days later, I came across this.

It turns out that Scribd has started doing this to the authors of free works, but neglected to tell them!

This, then, is somewhat more serious.  Scribd has, in effect, begun to sell work that it has no right to sell, profiting of the copyright’s of others without permission.  It’s quite nefarious, in some ways, to build up a name as a provider of free hosting and then capture the intellectual property of your users and sell it for profit.  Make no mistake, whatever their justifications that is what they have done.

In the meantime, if you have works you wish to make public and freely downloadable, try Google Docs.

The HTML5 video battle: Part II

This is a quick update to yesterday’s post titled “Google opens the VP8 Codec“.  In that post I described the lay of the land for current software developers interested in the online video space, the battle around which codec will become the defacto standard for HTML5 video, and what it all means for us.

Almost as soon as I posted, it needed updating – the news is coming quick and fast.  All of the involved companies seem to realise that this is a major turning point in the web and they all want it going their way.  Most of the contenders realise that they themselves don’t have the sway to push this issue by themselves and it is quickly devolving into a fight between two camps.  Team Google, and Team Apple, with two different technologies and two completely opposed philosophical outlooks on the way the technology world should work.

In my previous post I accidental missed one of the contenders here, as they are really of only tangential influence in the current debate.  To summarise once more, the five players in this drama are Apple, Google, Microsoft, the Mozilla foundation and Opera Software – each has its own browser with its own dedicated followers and a greater or smaller percentage of the overall browser market: Safari, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox and Opera.

To catch up on the basics of the issues, please view my last post – we will now deal with the rapidly changing landscape and how it already differs from what I laid out yesterday.  There is no doubt that everyone was waiting for this announcement from Google, given the speed that the other players have made their responses.

To start, Firefox and Opera both supported the Ogg Theora codec as the default (and only) HTML5 video codec.  Mozilla have been very vocal on this point, routinely calling for support in preventing H.264 from becoming a patent encumbered defacto standard.  It was announced yesterday that current developer editions, from the nightly builds, of Firefox and Opera also support VP8 – throwing their weight behind Google and the newly opened codec.

These three then, Firefox, Opera and Chrome, represent a majority amount of the browser marketplace.  According to the W3 Schools market share report, these three contenders represent 62.2% of the Browser market share.

It is no surprise then that Microsoft, despite reservations, announced support for VP8 in Internet Explorer 8.  Not native support, it must be said, however they have stated that anyone who has the VP8 codec installed themselves will be able to view VP8 video via the HTML5 video tag in IE8.  This to me is a very defensive position for Microsoft, obviously they’re still worried about patent attacks and so don’t want to bundle a potentially encumbered codec with their own browser.  However this move also shows that they realise they can’t ignore the potential of VP8 to break through H.264’s stranglehold and become the web standard.  They can’t decide which camp to bet on, so they’re betting both.

Whilst native support would have been better, this is still a partial win for VP8 supporters and raises the total Browser market share of VP8 compatible browsers to 78.4%, assuming that VP8 support will be coming only for IE8.  This is a near overwhelming victory, as the remaining market-share is split between IE7 and 6, who combined equal about 17.2% of the market share (hands up if you can’t believe that IE6 still commands 7.9%.  Upgrade people!) and Safari, the last remaining hold-out, with a tiny market share of only 3.7%.

Given that IE7 and 6 are unlikely to be upgraded at all for HTML5 support, we can effectively count out 17.2% of the market from this discussion – they’re unlikely to get any codec until they upgrade. So only 82.1% of the market are actually involved in this discussion at all. What this means then is for all the people who will be able to access HTML5 video, 95.4% will be able to access VP8 (either natively or by installing the codec themselves).The 4.5% using Safari will be the only ones who cannot.

Compare this to Ogg Theora, supported by only Firefox, Chrome and Opera, and you have a potential market of 75% of the browser market.  Still a goodly amount, but you’re missing anyone using Safari or Internet Explorer.

H.264 is supported by Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer.  This is the only codec safari users can see and is supported by only 40% of the potential marketplace.

Numbers like this would normally mean that VP8 was a clear winner already and the battle was over before it began, H.264 is a no-starter.  What does Apple and the mighty Steve Jobs have to say about this?

According to an article at The Register: VP8 is a bad choice because it will be liable to the same attacks as Ogg Theora on the patent front, and it performs slower and with worse compression than H.264.  Their evidence for the poor performance?  As linked in the article, a paper written by college student supporter of H.264 and contributor to an open source decoder of same, who claims VP8 performs poorly and will not rival H.264 in any way, and the spec is poor and unlikely to be corrected by Google.

This is the reality distortion field in full effect and it will be interesting to see the Jobs supporters rally behind this particular piece of FUD.  I am not qualified personally to judge the quality of VP8 vs H.264.  A quick search on the net shows the world is divided between those that think it is better, those who claim it is not and those who really don’t see any difference.  I think the quality issue for web video is itself a non-starter, the 95% support ratio would, under normal circumstances, push that aside as it has in technological battles before.  Quality of tech generally comes second to ease of use and compatibility with content.  If all the sites you like use VP8, you’re unlikely to care that H.264 is better.

That said, this move shows the supreme arrogance of the Apple community.  What Jobs is saying with a one line email is that we believe VP8 is no threat because a college student said so.  Now this college student might be the worlds best video codec analyst, but… how is anyone to know? One college student’s opinion versus Google’s engineers, On2’s original developers, and every other person who has played with the tech and pronounced it good.

Enough on that, as I said, it’s likely a non-issue.  The real issue is that Apple is holding firm – no VP8 support, H.264 only.  What does this mean for us?

I’d love to call this one for VP8 with overwhelming support, Google standing behind it stating they are completely unafraid of potential patent trolls and 95% of the available market supporting the codec.

We can’t though.  Apple, despite having only a 3.3% share of the browser market, has a 100% share of the iPhone market.  With no support for Flash, currently H.264 is the only way to get video to those devices.  Sure, overall this portion of the market is relatively small, and Android will no doubt have VP8 support – but the issue is this.  This battle will, in the end, be decided by us.  The developers.  If the majority of sites go VP8 as the defacto standard, Apple will more and more feel the pressure to include support for it in the iPhone Safari client as the iPhone users get more and more frustrated at their inability to view those sites.

The question remaining is how many developers are willing to cut out such a, some would say inordinately visible, section of their market?  iPhone uptake is pushing many of the larger sites towards HTML5, and with that as their driver they are unlikely to choose a video codec that the iPhone doesn’t support.

The battle is far from over everyone, and we still can’t call a winner here.  Don’t doubt for a second that Jobs understands the mindshare and brand power he wields with his “magical” devices, and don’t doubt that he will use every ounce of leverage he has to make the world conform to his reality distortion field.

I will continue to update as more news comes in, however for now I think my previous advice still stands.  The safest route is H.264 with a Flash backup for Opera and Firefox who don’t support it.

My preferred option? I have to say i’m weighing in with VP8 here.  I had really thought we’d left behind the time when we coded the same page in different ways to cater for differences in browsers.  We need a standard web, and that means, a standard video codec.

Thoughts anyone? Have I missed anything or am I just plain nuts? Let me know in the comments.

Google opens the VP8 Codec

In case anyone missed the news this morning, at Google’s developers conference they announced the long awaited and suspected open sourcing of the VP8 video codec. In a quick follow-up, Adobe announced the release of a new add-on kit for Dreamweaver CS5 supporting the new(ish) HTML5 tags and utilising VP8 as the video codec of choice for the new <video> tag.

What does this mean for us?

The HTML5 video landscape is a complicated one that has been causing a fair amount of confusion over the last few months.  Basically what we are seeing are the biggest, most important tech companies of the time squaring off against each other over the argument of video codecs, and the whole mess exists because the standards committee do not specify a codec that must be used for interoperability in the standard itself.

There are four key players in this drama and they are the usual suspects, Apple, Microsoft and Google, joined by the Mozilla foundation.  Combined they represent a massive majority of the browser traffic on the web through their four key browser products.  Safari, Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Firefox.

These browsers are all split in which video codecs they are going to (or already do) support for the video tag in HTML5.  Apple and Microsoft have joined forces and both Safari and Internet Explorer support the H.264 codec exclusively, much to the consternation of many developers and interest groups.  H.264 is, although a great codec, heavily patent encumbered which has financial consequences for anyone wishing to work with the codec.  As many have correctly pointed out, this introduces a potentially insurmountable barrier of entry for many developers and companies who are unable, or unwilling, to pay licence fees required.

Just what licence fees are required and who has to pay them is another scarily murky area.  It’s well known that both Apple and Microsoft are paying heavy licence fees for the right to use the codec in their browsers, but what of developers and content producers? Are they required to pay a licence fee to use the codec?  Opinion is divided on this topic.

In response to this, Mozilla spoke out against the codec and has refused to add support for it into their Firefox browser (though support is being added for non-patent encumbered countries via the Wildfox fork).  Instead, the Firefox browser supports the open source Ogg Theora codec.

Apple has, quite famously,claimed that Ogg Theora is breaching several patents and issued a statement around Ogg Theora, claiming that a “pool of patents” is being drawn together to “go after” Ogg Theora. Whether or not they will personally be involved in this attack is not clear.

Google appears to be taking advantage of the chaos to push uptake of their Chrome browser by taking the sensible route (someone had to) and supporting both codecs.  As well as this, they have now opened VP8 codec as previously mentioned, offering an alternative to both H.264 and Ogg Theora that is guaranteed protection from patent attacks. (At least, until someone attempts to claim that it too violates H.264’s patents).

So what we have is a fractured landscape, now containing three separate codecs.  At this point, from the user’s point of view, Google Chrome has to be the logical choice as it will support all three codecs and thus you wont consistently come across sites whose video you are unable to view.  Given that Mozilla’s stated reason for boycotting H.264 is to “avoid helping uptake and de-facto standardisation of a patent encumbered codec”, it will be interested to see if they write support for VP8 into the Firefox browser.

What this means for developers is more complicated.  By offering a truly free and patent unencumbered codec Google has taken a big step towards standardising the platform and providing a web-video solution that could truly cross all browsers.  Unfortunately for that to work, all of the other browsers will have to come to the party and support VP8 in their own browsers, and in the short term this seems unlikely.  Apple in particular seem devoted to the H.264 codec and will likely fight any solution that seeks to minimise its use.  The fact that they have been visibly antagonistic towards Google over the last few months is unlikely to help matters.

So unfortunately, the best choice for developers in the current situation is probably H.264.  It is supported currently by all major browsers except for Firefox as a straight HTML5 video tag.  For firefox users, we’re back to where we were years ago, writing pages that display different content for different browsers. H.264 is also one of the codecs supported natively by Flash, so a solution that wont require keeping two different encoded version of each document is to embed a flash player in the page when the browser is detected as Firefox.

What we’ll have then is a page that can be viewed on all browsers except Firefox on HTML5 (including iPhone and iPad browsers), and viewed using a flash player plugin on Firefox.

For the near future that seems to be the best option.  It does leave the question of content creator licensing open and it certainly isn’t optimal, but barring an unusual act of respect for developers and open standards on the part of Apple, it is likely to be the situation we are stuck with for some time.

The black and white fallacy

Slashdot | Dot-Communism Is Already Here

There is an interesting note (followed by an interesting discussion) on Slashdot about the trends toward communal behaviour on the internet and the way this is putting paid to many 50’s-era “myths” about communism and its evils.

Personally I think the first few responders have got it right.  Just as in most cases, the absolutes on either side are as dangerous as the other.  Absolute capitalism leads to economic collapse, serious gaps between the mega-rich and the starving-poor and a level of selfish viciousness that is astonishing to behold.  Likewise, absolute communism breeds -exactly- the same problems as the system set up to empower the workers is itself perverted to serve the comfortable few.

Luckily, the world has very few absolutes.  I have been watching the American media a bit lately and am constantly amazed by some of the things said, particularly on channels such as Fox News.  I often am led to wonder whether the presenters on this channel actually believe the things they say, or are cynically manipulating a public more impressed with theatrics and personal attacks then actual reasoned debate and knowledge.  To this day I’m unsure which I’d prefer to be the truth.

Watching the constant attacks on president Obama, constantly calling him and his policies and ideas “socialist” has been a complete laugh.  There must be a segment of the population who obviously believe America to be a pure capitalist society.  Truth me people, it isn’t – and you’ll be thankful for it.

The classic remark was from a Chrysler dealer not long after the company started shutting down franchises and giving them to other people, sticking the owners with stock they couldn’t sell and massive debts they couldn’t support.  The story was horrifyingly sad, but it didn’t prevent us noticing the absurdity of what this man said:  “How could this happen in America? I thought we were a capitalist society!”

The place where this sort of thing can most easily happens is a more “capitalist” society!  In a purely capitalist society the market decides and there’s nothing stopping someone who is paying you from deciding to pay someone else instead to do your job.  If they can do it cheaper, better, or hell, if they just like the look of their face more than yours.  That’s what capitalism is all about, free market.  (Emphasis on free.)

It’s a pretty horrible way to live for 90% of the people, so society decides to restrain the free market in various ways.  We put regulation on the way companies dump waste (free market economics demand that companies dump waste as cheaply as possible, which prohibits environmentally safe options), the way they treat labour (minimum wage restrictions, unfair dismissal laws) and how they build their products (national safety standards).

We step further from the free market in our social services too – some countries more than others.  Welfare, public school systems, public health-care (Australians, Canadians and plenty of other countries have it) are all “socialist” ideas that mix nicely with a capitalist economic system.  Its the citizens paying for services available to everyone.

So every time you hear someone spit out “socialised medicine!” like its some sort of disease, realise that there is no “capitalism vs communism” anymore.  Theres just the world, and individual societies who are each determining how much of their money they are willing to give to the government in order that everyone in the country should benefit from new services.

Personally, I find it a constant astonishment that a country who is so willing to spend billions of dollars for no other reason than killing the people of other countries is so allergic to spending some of that money to keep their own people alive.  In the end, it’s health-care and education that will keep your country strong far longer than just guns and muscles. 

And please don’t forget that communism and totalitarianism are not the same thing.  It’s not only the communists who have to worry about governments controlling and oppressing their people.  We -all- do.

Chaser’s Censorship (or Much Ado About Nothing)

Well, I finally got around to watching the second episode of the third season of Chaser’s War On Everything, the current whipping boy of Australia’s Moral Guardians and Supreme Example Of All That Is Wrong With The Media Today.

To recap, Chaser performed a sketch entitled “Make a realistic wish foundation” which involves presenting pencil cases and a stick to children in a parody of the make a wish foundation. It ended with the now infamous line that prompted complaints, a two week ban and the censoring of all future repeats of the episode. “Why spend a lot of money on them, when they’re going to die anyway.”

I feel like a bit of disclosure is due at this point, I myself have spent some time in contact with disabled and dying children and my wife has devoted her career and a large amount of her life to them. Personally I think the make a wish foundation does a wonderful job of providing some small comfort to the children and their parents, who have to face continuing after their death. It is not a fun situation, it is very serious and painful.

I hate censorship and would be here defending them regardless of what they said. With all I said above I sat down with my wife and we watched the show fully prepared to be completely offended.

How surprised was I then that the skit was incredibly short, and made me giggle. It wasn’t roaring funny but neither was it this filthy searing insult to sick children everywhere. It was obviously an irreverent poke at a revered institution. I did wince at the end line, I do think it was in bad taste, but without the controversy I would have forgotten it minutes after it was over.

Sure it was bad taste, but it’s chaser. If you don’t like bad taste humour you’re watching the wrong show, and it’s not like all Australia doesn’t know what they’re like by now.

It’s well overblown, astonishingly so, and it’s disgusting that we have all spent so much time on this issue. It’s also insane how many comments on this issue begin “I haven’t seen the show but…” and then go on to denigrate and abuse them based purely on hearsay, from which you would almost be expecting them to be assaulting sick children in their beds.

To my mind they’ve done far worse in the past and have done nothing but upset the over sensative now. As George Carlin famously said, there is no subject so sacrosanct that you can’t joke about it. He punctuated this with a quite funny routine about rape that elicited much the same response.

That was about thirty years ago. Guess we haven’t come all that far after all have we.

Grow up Australia. If you don’t like it, turn off.