Our Latest Discovery

July 26, 2007  3:43 PM

Orbo: perpetual hope for perpetual motion

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

For hundreds of years, enterprising souls, including Leonardo da Vinci, have tried to create a perpetual motion machine: a device that creates energy with no external source. Since August of last year, there’s been a huge amount of buzz around the latest contender called Orbo, from an Irish company called Steorn. Orbo was introduced in a full-page ad in The Economist and the company was interviewed by the BBC and The Guardian, among others.

Here’s the basics from Steorn’s Web site:
Orbo produces free, clean and constant energy – that is our claim. By free we mean that the energy produced is done so without recourse to external source. By clean we mean that during operation the technology produces no emissions. By constant we mean that with the exception of mechanical failure the technology will continue to operate indefinitely.

The sum of these claims for our Orbo technology is a violation of the principle of conservation of energy, perhaps the most fundamental of scientific principles. The principle of the conservation of energy states that energy can neither be created or destroyed, it can only change form.

Because of the revolutionary nature of our claim, not only to the world of science but to the world in general, Steorn issued a challenge to the scientific community in August 2006 to test our technology and report their findings. The process of validation that has resulted from this challenge is currently underway, with results expected by the end of 2007.

Steorm announced that they would demo an Orbo prototype at the Kinetica Museum in London on July 4, 2007 but cancelled two days later when none of the three prototypes could be made to work. Naturally, there was a lot of cries of “snake oil” in the press and the blogosphere.

Steorm CEO Sean McCarthy said the group was pretty well aware they were setting themselves up for ridicule from the start. He also pointed out that prototypes are often finicky and subtle differences in the environment or handling for transport can cause problems. Call me a perpetual optimist — I think the jury’s still out.

Here’s Endgadget’s interview with Steorn CEO Sean McCarthy after the failed demo.

Here’s the Slashdot debate. (Well, maybe it veers a wee bit off-topic…)

After Steorn’s open invitation to scientists and engineers to examine Orbo, they contracted with 22 applicants who will analyze the technology and who are required to publish the results of their analysis.

Can it be true? Time will tell — until it does, though, I’m going to continue to think it might be. ~ Ivy Wigmore

July 23, 2007  1:58 PM

Touched By An Angel (-Wish)

SarahCortes Sarah Cortes Profile: SarahCortes

According to the web site Angelwish.org, “Every 60 seconds, a child dies of an AIDS related illness.”  The Angelwish web site (and accompanying organization) touches the lives of many, many children – and today, I’m proud to say that they’re my latest discovery.  Here is how the web site describes itself: 

Angelwish was created to put the power to change a child’s life in your hands. All you need to do is select where in the world you want to save a life and we will help you to become a digital Angel.

Select the following link to grant a wish on any of six continents:


What makes this site particularly interesting?  Well, the site’s database of listings is generated by crawling the wish lists that charitable organizations have published on Amazon.com.  We all have friends or family who have generated a “wish list” on Amazon, providing us hints as to what to buy them on their birthday.  Well, charitable organizations generate these lists as well.  Angelwish brings the charitable wish lists onto Angelwish.org by way of mashup technology.

David Berlind of ZDNET referenced this site in his weekly podcast, which can be found here:


July 23, 2007  11:24 AM

News rivers: Dave Winer makes mobile feed browsing brilliantly easy

GuyPardon Guy Pardon Profile: GuyPardon

Dave Winer, generally considered the father of RSS, has been playing with different ways of organizing, aggregating and displaying feeds for years. OPML was a meaningful contribution (and, for once, a less controversial one) to the syndication world, allowing users to share, import and export lists of feeds, all using free tools at opmlmanager.com.

Recently, with the launch of the iPhone, an RSS hack that Winer created two years ago has been getting much more attention. Essentially, he’s optimized all of the content that a news site makes available through RSS so that it’s ideal for viewing on a mobile device, removing formatting, images (read: advertising) and all other content extraneous to the simple – and potent – combination of headline, link and summary.

For Dave’s definition of a “river of news,” refer to ReallySimpleSyndication.org, where he uses a “conveyor belt sushi” metaphor to explain the concept further.

Mmm. Sushi.

[Photo credit: Biohabit.org)

To use the newsriver, just point your browser, mobile or otherwise, to bbcriver.com for the BBC or nytimesriver.com for the New York Times. To see how it works, view this video of a BlackBerry user browsing a newsriver:


Critics of the technique and technology point out that Avantgo and other clipping services have provided similar functions to early adopters using wireless Palm Pilots or Pocket PCs years ago. That being said, the explosion of smartphones like the BlackBerry, Treo, Windows Mobile devices and now the iPhone has made quick-loading, mobile optimized news content much more compelling than the graphically-clogged homepages of many providers. Of course, the iPhone’s ability to browse the “full Internet” makes it quite possible, even pleasant, to surf through the different major newspaper and online media sites, but if you’re stuck on the EDGE network as you browse, it’s quite possible that a newsriver may be preferable.

I’m not sure whether Dave deserves credit for something entirely new. I do know that what he’s created makes it easier for me to access the news on the go, and for that I thank him. I’m not alone in that. A-list bloggers like Jeff Jarvis, Dan Farber, Read/Write Web, Scoble and Dave Winer himself have all held up newsrivers as something revolutionary. Steve Rubel, over at MicroPersuasion, recently pointed out that Megite, which aggregates blog posts like TechMeme, now provides a newsriver.

The point that Dave makes in the post that reintroduced the concept of the river – and defends it against critics – is much the same as the one I just made above. While it’s been possible to do this sort of thing on a PDA or BlackBerry for some time, no one has made it as easy as simply pointing your mobile browser to a URL.

Now, in the wake of losing my MDA on a fishing trip last weekend (RIP), my next challenge to decide which mobile device I’ll be using to paddle down the newsriver.

July 18, 2007  2:11 PM

Tech support in the Middle Ages

Margaret Rouse Margaret Rouse Profile: Margaret Rouse

July 16, 2007  3:08 PM

ZeroFootPrint.net: Learn how to reduce your personal carbon footprint

GuyPardon Guy Pardon Profile: GuyPardon

Green is definitely the color of the moment. Green data centers, green computing, green touring, green tea. Even geogreen, if you follow Tom Friedman.

Of course, it’s not easy being green. Just watch Kermit.
Just as there are complex tradeoffs in choosing what you eat (an Omnivore’s Dilemma, in fact), managing to make the “right” choice in terms of how you travel, how you do business and simply how you live is a test of both ecological ethics and cold, hard business savvy.

IBM, for instance, recently launched Project Big Green, diverting more than $1 billion dollars annually to create more energy efficient data centers.

And, according to Bridget Botelho, HP is also making a push for lower data center power consumption and green computing.

Even Google and Yahoo! are receiving fresh scrutiny, as TechCrunch recently compared just how green the two Internet giants are these days.

Fortunately, thanks to an environmental movement that’s still going strong, decades after Earth Day and fueled by an energy crunch that’s unlikely to abate any time soon, there are companies, services and individuals working hard to make being green a bit easier and sustainable. Ivy blogged about e-waste, e-cycling and environmental responsibility in the enterprise recently as well, so it’s safe to say that our team is united in believing this to be a significant issue of the moment.

We’re not alone in that assessment. Carbon neutrality, whether purchased or achieved through internal changes to processes, materials or technologies, is increasingly an important benchmark for organizations and individuals alike. Yahoo, in fact, has pledged to become carbon neutral by the end of 2007.

TechCrunch also covered GigaOm’s launch of Earth2Tech, written by Katie Fehrenbacher and Adena DeMonte, a blog that will track news, events and technologies in the green computing world. Yahoo is also urging people to become more environmentally friendly using two other sites, Be a Better Planet and Yahoo Green.

ZeroFootPrint.net is at the leading edge in terms of personalizing these choices. Based in Canada, the nonprofit was founded by entrepreneur Ron Dembo, fresh off the sale of risk-management software firm Algorithmics. ZeroFootPrint recommends green products and services for individuals, organizations and cities to help reduce their environmental footprints. I particularly like the handy calculators that allow users to determine how their food, building, consumer consumption and travel choices have larger consequences.

Over the next month, I’ll be researching a podcast on green computing, to be released in conjunction with a new ebook from the editors of SearchDataCenter.com, a leader in covering the explosion of energy efficiency and green practices on the enterprise beat. If any readers know of other great sites, organizations or services that are shaping, leading, innovating or writing about green computing (TerraPass, NativeEnergy, UC Boulder, and WorldChanging.com all spring to mind), please let me know.

And, of course, if you’ve made your own changes to your data center or home office, transportation choices or energy consumption habits, I’d love to hear about that too.

In the meantime, I’ll be walking home from work today and biking tomorrow, making my own small concession and contribution, along with getting some much needed time in the sun. It’s a shame my laptop doesn’t have a solar charger!

[Photo credit: Nigel’s EcoBlog]

July 13, 2007  1:09 PM

The Library Lookup Project: Use bookmarklets to reserve library books discovered on Amazon.com

GuyPardon Guy Pardon Profile: GuyPardon

Merlin Mann, author of the brilliant organization and productivity blog 43 folders, recently resurfaced an “old” post from 2004.

It’s amazing how quickly Internet time moves!

Personally, I love when I unearth digital miscellania from my archives, though it’s rare to find an item as useful and interesting as Merlin’s resdiscovery.

Here’s what he found (again):

Jon Udell created the Library Lookup Project in 2002 to allow users to look up books in their local library’s online catalog systems using a Web browser bookmarklet.

I tried it, surfing Amazon’s recommended picks for me and tying it into the Boston Public Library. Success! Now, I just have to wait for Send to arrive sometime in 2013.

I’ve been doing this manually for some time, noting books there or on goodreads.com (a recent happy discovery, made through a high school friend), but this is huge improvement.

For those interested, Jon created a bookmarklet generator for the project, along with these tips for troubleshooting.

Happy summer reading!

July 11, 2007  9:15 AM

The White Stripes raise the bar on cool, from ocean to permafrost

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Hard to believe, but the White Stripes are playing my sleepy little home town, Charlottetown, PEI. It would be hard to believe, that is, if I didn’t know about their Canadian tour, ocean to permafrost.

Yup, the Stripes are playing my home town.

And from ocean to ocean, and all the way to the permafrost, the Stripes are setting new standards of cool on this tour, especially with their secret shows. Unscheduled pre-concert gigs are a tradition for many big acts. However, as you might expect, the Stripes are doing it a little differently. On the flash mob model, Jack & Meg have been getting the word out to fans — via texting, forum posts and WOM buzz — about free appearances where no band has gone before:

They played an inner city youth centre in Edmonton

They played a transit bus in Winnipeg

The Stripes also played a little backup for a local busker in Winnipeg. (See video.)

They played a bowling alley in Saskatoon

They played for 40 seriously ill kids at the Bronson Center in Ottawa.

Occasionally, I become a little disenchanted with technology, and daydream about going incommunicado on some remote desert island. But tech is constantly expanding our ability to connect, and making events like that secret show possible. And — really — how cool is that?

~ Ivy Wigmore

July 9, 2007  6:17 PM

Code to Joy’s 7 Wonders of Programming Languages

GuyPardon Guy Pardon Profile: GuyPardon

It’s been quite a week for wonders of the world. First, the online world got together and voted for seven modern wonders of the world, provoked by the lonely status of the Pyramids as the last remaining example of the ancient wonders. (For those that love these kinds of lists, Wonderclub.com has put together their own indices of global wonders, including ancient, modern and natural versions.)

My eye was drawn, however, to this list of programming languages from Code to Joy, where computer scientist, philosopher and cyberscriber M. Easter has “compiled” his own, “admittedly biased,” list of languages. In chronological order, here are the languages that the digital composer thought were the seven wonders of the coding world:

  1. Fortan
  2. Lisp
  3. Smalltalk
  4. C
  5. Python
  6. Java
  7. Javascript

Now, no doubt many of you are already grumbling. What about C++, Visual Basic, COBOL, Perl or APL? What about the sexy new kid on the block, Ruby? What about PHP, ubiquitous on the Linux servers that underpin today’s database-driven Internet?

Several comments on Easter’s post have already listed those examples, protesting Easter’s choices, along with .NET, Forth, SKILL, Objective-C, Haskell and others. As usual, everyone has an opinion — especially on a rather subjective subject like this.

Whew! Editing a list like this isn’t easy, of course, and it’s much easier to criticize than create. What do you think? When you look at the history of code, as illustrated in this exceptional diagram of the evolution of programming languages (hat tip to M) which do you think are “wonders of the programming world?”

What would your list look like?

My own line in the sand, in case you were wondering, would (in no particular order) reads follows:

  1. Javascript
  2. Java
  3. C
  4. Ruby
  5. COBOL
  6. Perl
  7. Python

Agree? Disagree? Think the whole thing is preposterous? Comment away.

July 5, 2007  5:56 PM

Hacker or cracker?

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Throughout the years I’ve been writing and editing on WhatIs, I don’t think there’s been another issue that’s cropped up as often or been as gnarly to try to settle as the question of whether a person who attacks computers and networks is a hacker or a cracker.

Just about everyone but the serious geeks uses hacker to mean an attacker but anytime we do we get notes from readers to the effect that a malicious hacker is a cracker and a hacker is just someone with mad computer skills. Furthermore, they feel that we should be upholding proper usage and not letting standards slide. On the other hand, when we’ve used “cracker,” we often get notes asking if we don’t mean “hacker” and suggesting that we might want to think about using the same term everone else does.

I’ll admit I’ve often tried to skirt the issue by using “attacker.” But the time comes when an editor has to take a stand. Especially in the wake of several years of wishy-washy, indeterminate indecision. So. Decision time. Let’s see what everyone else says…

Wikipedia has a fairly extensive entry for hacker. The article starts out by defining a hacker as “a person who illegally breaks into computer and network systems” but links to a better page for hacker definition controversy.

Alpha hacker Eric S. Raymond weighs in authoritatively on the topic in his article, How to become a hacker:

There is another group of people who loudly call themselves hackers, but aren’t. These are people (mainly adolescent males) who get a kick out of breaking into computers and phreaking the phone system. Real hackers call these people ‘crackers’ and want nothing to do with them. Real hackers mostly think crackers are lazy, irresponsible, and not very bright, and object that being able to break security doesn’t make you a hacker any more than being able to hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer. Unfortunately, many journalists and writers have been fooled into using the word ‘hacker’ to describe crackers; this irritates real hackers no end.

The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackers break them.

There’s much more in Raymond’s FAQ-style article, including:

The Hacker Attitude
1. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.
2. No problem should ever have to be solved twice.
3. Boredom and drudgery are evil.
4. Freedom is good.
5. Attitude is no substitute for competence.

On the other hand, you can also find support for the use of hacker as a synonym for cracker. According to wordorigins.org, that usage goes back to the November 20, 1963 issue of The Tech, the M.I.T. student paper, where it was used to refer to breaking into the phone system:

There are those that claim that hacker should not mean someone who maliciously invades computer systems, and that it really means someone proficient in computer use. But this is not the history of the term. Hacking from its beginnings at M.I.T. has always been associated with using technology to subvert institutional systems for personal use. Besides, the meanings of words are determined by usage, not etymology. So if people use hacker to mean someone who breaks into computer systems, that’s what it means.

So, the way I see it, there are a number of fairly compelling arguments for either side, chief among them being:

  • Eric Raymond says a hacker is defined by skill and good intention. And everybody loves Eric Raymond.
  • The earliest reference to skill-based, non-malicious technology hacking that I could find traces it back to ham radio operators in the fifties, predating the MIT paper cited on wordorigins.
  • However, as wordorigins correctly points out, common use is what drives definition. So if people use hacker to mean cracker, eventually that’s what it will mean.
  • And yet… cracker is unambiguous. If one uses cracker in this context, people get it. So if we use “hacker” to mean a highly computer-literate geek and “cracker” to mean an attacker of whatever skill level…

Sigh. ‘Round and round and round it goes. I’m just not sure. I’d love some input. What do you think? ~ Ivy Wigmore

July 2, 2007  3:56 PM

uMouse: Control your computer using gestures and a webcam, not a mouse

GuyPardon Guy Pardon Profile: GuyPardon

This past weekend’s iPhone launch has introduced hundreds of thousands of users to a new paradigm for mobile computing interfaces, multi-touch. While only time will show if an small, touchscreen keyboard will be a pleasant and productive experience, there are any number of other companies and researchers experimenting with different ways of controlling our digital devices. I’ve been using a Kensington Orbit for years, for instance, a USB trackball that has proven tough, easy to use and helpful for scrolling and editing long lines of code. Earlier this year, I invested in a Logitech MX Revolution, easily the best wireless mouse I’ve ever experienced. I can’t emphasize how much I love the hyperscroll wheel, forward/backward buttons right where my thumb rests or programmable buttons.

This afternoon, however, I found a new and downright fun new way of moving the cursor around the screen. Sadly, the brain-computer interface (BCI) that DARPA is developing isn’t quite ready for prime time, so don’t get too excited — yet. Instead, programmer Larry Lart has created uMouse, a free Windows application that, in concert a USB webcam, allows the user to control the cursor and left- or right-click using head movements or hand gestures. While the real-time visual tracking the program uses to translate movement into directives is a bit processor intensive, anyone who presents often or needs to have more flexibility in where and how they interact with a laptop or workstation now has another option with undeniable geek appeal.

Nice work, Larry! Now, to decide what I want my PC to do when I smile. :)

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