that’s all, folks

retirementI’ve recently fully committed to the full-time role of Executive Director at Little Paws Learning Centre in Whitehorse, Yukon. I spend anywhere from 10 to 14 hours a day performing the duties for this job. As a result, I’m left with pretty much no time to keep up developments in the technology and media industries.

Unfortunately, that means I have to kick this weekly Geek Love column to the curb. 

It’s been a blast. I’ve been writing Geek Love pretty much every week for the past four years or so. I’m gonna miss the opportunity to explore ideas in a published form every week.

I hope that you enjoyed reading it (just before you laid it under your cat’s litter tray).

iphone and blackberry: a difference of memory

oldhorseNormally a Blackberry Curve user on a slow network, I recently had the pleasure of using an Apple iPhone on Rogers’ high speed 3G mobile network in Vancouver.

I loved it.

It is inarguably the single most pleasant mobile computing experience available to humankind today.

The combination of the iPhone’s physical look-and-feel and its on-screen software user interface are a new standards-bearer in the world of handheld computing.

With one exception: you can only do one thing at a time.

That sucks. Continue reading

GPS: From Tragedy to Frivolity

spac_gps_navstar_iia_iir_iif_constellation_lgGlobal Positioning System (GPS for short) is a satellite-based way to locate yourself on the face of the earth.

Back in the early nineties I used a GPS unit for some mining exploration field work I was performing as a summer student.

It was massive, heavy, and highly inaccurate. We carried it around the bush like a crown jewel in an awkward plastic Pelican case. After all, it had cost the company more than a car. 

We didn’t need that coming out of our pay.

So it still amazes me that both my Blackberry Curve and my iPhone pack GPS capabilities that can pinpoint my location to within a few feet.

Like many technologies we enjoy today, GPS was designed by the US military.

You might think, then, that GPS’ development was driven by a mindset of fear and animosity.

In fact, GPS has evolved more as a technology of public safety.

In 1983, the civilian Korean Airlines flight KAL007 strayed into Soviet airspace as a result of a navigational error.

 The Soviet government, however, considered this passage a deliberate and  provocative test of its military response capabilities.

So they shot the plane down, killing all 269 people on board.

At this time, GPS was still little more than a concept.

Still, to try and prevent future disasters such as KAL007, US President Ronald Reagan promised to make it available as an operational system to civilians.

That happened ten years later, in April 1995, when testing on a network of 24 satellites was finally completed. 

(There are now about 31 up there.)

GPS is still an American system managed by its air force. Every other major government in the world, including China, the European Union, and Russia, have plans for similar systems.

However, only GPS is full operational.

GPS, as a consumer product, is well known as a personal navigation system.

GPS can track an individual’s whereabouts and offer guidance on arriving at a specific destination.

When coupled with a software mapping system, it can offer real-time, turn-by-turn directions.

Many cars now have GPS capabilities that promise to replace paper maps.

So, in a sense, GPS is a system developed to help protect the male ego. 

(There’s that great line from Cars, when the lost van says to his wife: “I don’t need a map! I have the GPS. Never need a map again, thank you.”)

My Blackberry has this capability built-in.

The last time we were in Vancouver, I let my 4-year-old son navigate us from one side of the city to the other with it.

Other than a brief detour to a Dairy Queen, he got us to our destination without incident.

I was pretty excited about this. But the glow wore off quickly when I realized I didn’t really need turn-by-turn directions in a city like Whitehorse.

It seems that RIM has unfortunately limited the Blackberry’s GPS capabilities to its own navigational software.

My Curve doesn’t even automatically “geotag” photos with the location at which they are taken. (Although, I could kind of hack the device to make this happen.)

So it’s very exciting that Apple has opened up the iPhone’s GPS capabilities to any developer writing software for the platform.

Now some really interesting GPS-based software is starting to appear.

I’ve tried Nearby, a social network application that displays a map of your whereabouts in relationship to your friends’.

It also allows you to mark locations on a map that can be shared with others.

Another social application, Twinkle, combines GPS with the geek social network Twitter.

This is sort of silly, though, since I don’t think people who Twitter every really engage with one another in real life. So location in Twitter is somewhat superfluous.

Another cool, if frivolous, application is Graffitio. As its name suggests, you can virtually graffiti any GPS-based location on earth.

Another iPhone user who happens upon that spot will be able to view what you’ve left behind.

Interesting uses for this, obviously, are fun things like scavenger hunts.

Quite possibly the best use of GPS on the iPhone, however, is urbanspoon.

Like a Magic 8-Ball, you can shake your iPhone and it will randomly find you a nearby restaurant.

This is accomplished by comparing your GPS location to the database of eateries at urbanspoon.com.

If you have a craving or a budget, you can specify a set of parameters such as cuisine and price, to narrow the results.

Once you choose a place to go, urbanspoon generates a map-based set of directions to get you there.

Current implementations of GPS on the iPhone are cool, and represent the dawning of the age of Relationship Technology.

But they’re just the tip of the iceberg. 

Once developers get past the fun aspect of location, they’ll slowly start to integrate the experience of GPS into the more utilitarian needs of a user’s mobile computing experience as it relates to all the data they need to engage with.

Then, like a 5-pound GPS unit in a Pelican case, we’ll all be able to leave our desktop computers behind to collect dust.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, August 8, 2008.

VOIP 101: How to Make Free Phone Calls

It should have been a video game that pegged a platoon of starving Space Marines lost on a craggy planet just south of the Crab Nebula against a ferocious, if somewhat flabby, horde of alien lizard space creatures fighting to protect the last bastion of lunar cheese in the known galaxy.

Instead, it’s a way to make phone calls over the internet.

Boooring.

VOIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, is a method of, well, making phone calls on the internet.

And you don’t need a phone company to do it. Continue reading

iphone 3g is a glimpse of the future

Apple’s new iPhone 3G represents the future of telecommunications and technology.

There, I’ve said it.

One big, fat grandiose statement about that new gadget that everybody wants. (With the exception of the people who are pretending not to want one, but really do.)

But it’s not too far from the truth.

For a long time I’ve recognized that mobile computing is a trend that will define the future of how we communicate with one another and engage with information.

Gone is the golden age of “traditional” computing, such as with desktop and notebook computers. Continue reading

Orata’s hypocaust warms our modern buns

Man, as winter nips us all in the butt as we all try to sneak out into spring, I’m reminded of why I love Sergius Orata and his hypocaust.

Orata’s the guy who originally conceived of and invented central heating.

Being that the hypocaust was constructed of stone pillars that held up a massive stone platform, though, not too many folks had one in their homes back around 95 BC.

In fact, Orata’s invention was really only used to stew folks at public baths throughout the Roman Empire.

However, Orata’s basic permise, that heat could be generated from one location in a building and distributed to others, is the foundation concept for what still keeps us warm all winter long.

A couple of centuries after Orata kicked it, some homes in the northern parts of the Roman Empire were constructed with central heating.

Basically, a big wood-fuelled oven was built in the basement.

Pipes set into walls distributed heat and ventilated fumes. Slaves made a ready thermostat system, of course.

Central heating fell out of fashion for about a millennium. Then around 1202, a settlement of Spanish Cistercian monks revived the idea and added a twist of their own: hydrology.

They diverted water from the Ebro River and used wood-fired furnaces to heat it. The warm water was then piped through crude radiators in their monastery, the “Real Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de Rueda,” which was recently converted into a luxury hotel and conference centre.

Peter the Great’s Summer Palace in Saint Petersburgh demonstrated some Russian refinement to the concept of water-based central heating. Built in 1710, this palace’s ductwork was made of elaborately painted porcelain.

Of course, where there’s heat energy, there’s waste.

Steam-driven central heating came to England in the 1830s. One of the first homes in England to have such a system was John Horley Palmer’s. The Governor of the Bank of England, Palmer had the system installed so that he could grow grapes in the cold northern climate.

These days gas- or oil-fired furnaces in basements are the norm across suburbia.

They are the engineering equivalent of architectural flatulence: cook the air to the point of indigestion and then expel it throughout the abode with the assistance of fans.

Then that pungent forced-air aroma suggests a unique airborne blend of decomposed toenails clippings, boogers, and dandruff from the days of yore.

My own digs date back to the pre-hippie era. When the gas-guzzling monster in the basement fires up I sometimes mistake if for a low-flying jet, or wonder if I might not wake up on the moon one morning.

I was recently exposed to an HVAC system in a new building.

HVAC stands for “heating, ventilating, and air-conditiong,” and, as the term suggests, this system is about the quality of air in and environment as well as its temperature.

There’s a focus on total environmental conditions, that includes the quality of air in a space.

The particular system I saw used gorgeously silent radiant heaters mounted near the ceiling.

A relatively confusing array of panels on the wall controls all aspects of its operation including humidity, air flow, and temperature.

Remarakably, the only maintenance the system needs is an annual rinse of a filter.

It’s said that Rome failed to realize the potential of machinery because they had such a vast supply of human slaves who served the purpose.

So it’s unlikely that Sergius Orata would have been able to comprehend the mechanized marvel that the HVAC system is.

Yet, Orata’s contribution to the spa culture of ancient Rome is wonderfully realized in these systems that permit humans to thrive in some of the harshest climates on the earth.

What’s better, no slaves are required.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, April 11, 2008.