Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Closing the iTunes Divide

The iTunes divide which has existed ever since the introduction of video content to iTunes in the US back in 2005 has, with little or no fanfare from Apple, just been firmly closed...

With today's other announcement, and perhaps despite the rumours earlier in the month that this was heading our way, this is interesting timing. Perhaps we're looking at a UK iPhone launch rather than (or as well as?) a new iPod?

An iPhone without the phone?

It looks like the rumours of yet another Apple product launch were right, for once, and the invite is certainly suggestive of a new iPod .

Welcome to the next generaton iPod?

Of course rumours of a widescreen video iPod were floating around long before the iPhone finally showed up. Maybe this time? But then, I'd still rather have a replacement for my 12-inch Powerbook...

Update: Or are we looking at a UK launch for the iPhone?

Update: Live coverage of the Apple Special Event on the 5th of September.

Monday, August 27, 2007

An act of rebellion

Paul Graham has been one of my favourite dispensers of wisdom ever since I heard him give a keynote at OSCON back in 2004. In his latest essay Paul talks about holding a program in your head and what that means for the people that have to manage programmers.

Any good programmer in a large organization is going to be at odds with it, because organizations are designed to prevent what programmers strive for... Good programmers manage to get a lot done anyway. But often it requires practically an act of rebellion against the organizations that employ them. Perhaps it will help to understand that the way programmers behave is driven by the demands of the work they do...

Essentially Paul is saying, both in this essay and most of his other writings, that you should hire smart people and let them get on with things. Funnily enough I agree, but as always, the difficult thing is to find the smart people in the first place...

Podcasts and the cutting room floor

In the wake of the Google Sky release I did a telephone interview for the Guardian science podcast with Alok Jha. Most of the interview, predictably perhaps, ended up on the cutting room floor but at least some of what I said made the cut...

Sunday, August 26, 2007

More Google Sky Tupperware

My quick hack yesterday where I PLASTIC enabled Google Sky generated a lot of email and encouragement. It also got me thinking about where to go next. However today's adventure in Tupperware I lay entirely at John Taylor's feet, it was his idea, although I must admit I hit myself squarely on the forehead and said "Doh!" when he suggested it...

More Google Sky tupperware...

Unfortunately yesterday's code only allowed Google Sky to listen for incoming ivo:// messages. Which isn't really as much fun as sending messages back out. I couldn't see an easy way to do that, but John could,

As for sending points out of Google Sky... you could add a URL to a marker so that when the user clicks on it in Google Sky it opens a web page. In our case we could have it pointing at a local web server that converts it into a PLASTIC message. - John Taylor

Of course that'd work just fine, so I quickly modified yesterday's code to do just that. Now when you send a PLASTIC message into Google Sky the <Description> tag in the Placemark has a link which, when clicked, will call back to the facade application's embedded webserver and allow you to send a PLASTIC message back to the Hub. This means we now have bi-directional control, both in and out, of Google Sky with PLASTIC.

I've uploaded the source code again, but please don't look at it too carefully, it's getting to be quite embarrassing how poorly it's written. I don't normally break object encapsulation like I've done here, but I was really keen to get this working. I've been putting off writing a "proper" Perl PLASTIC module for a while now, looks like Google Sky might be the thing that finally makes me do it...

Anyway, enough for today. Time to sit down and down this properly now I've proved to myself it's possible.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Turning Google Sky into Tupperware

The PLASTIC protocol is one of the big successes to come out of the IVOA and the VOTech Project. It is a simple to use, and perhaps more importantly simple to implement, communication protocol for client-side virtual observatory tools.

PLASTIC is a protocol for communication between client-side astronomy applications. It is very simple for application developers to adopt and is easily extended. Through PLASTIC applications can do tasks such as instruct each other to load VOTables, highlight a subset of rows or load an image of a particular area of sky. Although such operations are quite simple, they enable powerful collaborations between tools. The philosophy is that the astronomer should have a suite of interoperating tools at his disposal, each of which does one thing well and which can be composed according to his particular needs...

So of course one of the first things that occurred to me when I saw Google Sky was whether it could be made to play nice with all the other virtual observatory tools that are now PLASTIC-aware, and in the process turn it into so called "tupperware".

Google Sky as tupperware

It finally occurred to me this afternoon how you could do it, and I'm a bit embarrassed it has taken this long. I've written a small PLASTIC application, a facade, which registers with the PLASTIC Hub as normal and listens for ivo:// messages. These are PLASTIC messages telling interested applications to "point at" an RA & Dec. When such a message is passed through the Hub, say by CDS Aladin, it is forwarded to the facade application, which then builds a KML placemark file. The facade application then exposes this KML file via an embedded web server. If you then point Google Sky at this KML file via a new network link set to periodically update, e.g.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<kml xmlns="" hint="target=sky">
<name>Plastic Application</name>
then any RA & Dec points getting passed through the PLASTIC Hub will start to appear as Placemarks inside Google Sky in more or less real-time. In other words, and to cut a long story short, I've sucessfully managed to PLASTIC-enable Google Sky, at least for inbound messages. Which is good enough to be going on with...

I've uploaded the Perl source code to the simple application which I put together to PLASTIC-enable Google Sky. So if you're a heavy PLASTIC user, and plan to become a heavy Google Sky user too, you might want to take a look. If you do want to run it, the pre-requisite Perl modules are below,
and if you don't already have them, they can be found on CPAN.

Of course with John Taylor having just been hired away from the VO by Google there may be a real PLASTIC interface in Google Sky's future, as John is widely considered inside the IVOA to be the man behind the protocol. Although he'll normally point you to the list of other people involved and shrug his shoulders if you mention that. But in the mean while, I'm pretty happy with my quick hack...

Update: More Google Sky Tupperware...

Friday, August 24, 2007

The iPhone unlocked

Engadget is reporting that the software unlock solution being offered by is legitimate and does indeed do exactly what it says on the tin, unlocks the iPhone from AT&T.

CREDIT: Engadget

Of course it looks like the company that is offering this isn't going to just give us the code out of the goodness of their hearts,

Individual per unit licenses will be available starting next week. We are currently opening up our mail for bulk purchase enquiries of 500 licenses and above... -

Sounds pricey to me, so I guess I'm holding out hope that the guys over on the iPhone Dev Wiki will get there real soon now as well. From past history they'll probably just give the code away, which will be nice...

But if you can't wait for that, then Engadget have more...

Update: Looks like AT&T might make it hard to sell an unlocked iPhone, and there has been some discussion about whether it is legal (in the US) to do so...

Update: So about three weeks on, the iPhone Dev guys have come through with their software unlock, supposedly using the same method as the iPhoneSIMFree unlock.

Update: It's official, the first free and open source unlocking program for the iPhone have hit net, and Engadget have all the details...

CREDIT: Engadget

Update: There seems to be some debate about who should get credit for the hack, my best guess is that the iPhone Dev Wiki team are the "official" source of the unofficial unlock.

Update: Gizmodo has more on the mounting controversy over the source and credit for the software unlock.

Update: ...and more on the controversy from TUAW.

Dynamic image resizing

A link just got past to me about the new "scene carving" algorithm, introduced at the ACM's SIGGRAPH convention, for on the fly intelligent image resizing. This is actually pretty neat stuff...

Update: The original paper is also available...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Google Sky

We knew it was coming for a a couple of years now, and here it is at last. The latest version of Google Earth has the first release of Google Sky embedded inside it. Even if it is quite hard to find...

Google Sky is part of Google Earth v4.2 beta

More from me when I get my head around what it's going to mean for the professional community, but I can see changes coming. I think my VOEvent time line representations might just suddenly have become very old hat. At the very least I think I'd better start generating KML links from inside eSTAR.

Update: I've spent the afternoon poking around with the internals of the VOEvent broker and the KML documentation and I currently have a live network link (KML) connected to the broker. This means that any OGLE, Robonet-1.0, ESSENCE, SDSS, GCN or other event messages that flow across the backbone will be automatically published to Google Sky.

Right now the descriptions and other details attached to the placemarks are fairly basic, but I'll work on this again tomorrow and hopefully make some progress. The other things to take note of here is that this is a live feed, that means there won't be that much to see yet since I haven't pre-populated the network link with content. You'll see it in real time as it flows across the network...

Update: The Caltech guys have had a little bit of a head start since I'm told that Google Sky uses Caltech DPOSS images. This is what they had lined up and ready to roll for the launch,

Today Google has released a new Sky layer for Google Earth. In conjunction, the VOEventNet project is pleased to announce a set of mashups showing recent astronomical transients, updated every 15 minutes. The mashups show GCN feeds (SWIFT, Milagro, Integral), the GRBlog (contains sky-located GCN circulars), as well as OGLE microlensing events. The event feeds contain VOEvents, and drilldown is available to finding charts, light curves, and original VOEvents. - Roy Williams, Caltech

As you can tell from the boilerplate in the credits in their mashups, my own eSTAR project in Exeter is part of the VOEventNet project. In fact we provide the OGLE event feed data they're using in their as OGLE network link. Of course since Google Sky was covered by non-disclosure agreements today is the first I'd heard about things. Oh well...

Update: While those of us on the inside haven't quite grasped exactly what Google Sky means yet, most of us have figured out that the world has changed. There has been a large number of emails flying back and forth on mailing lists today, and I think a few people are going to be surprised by the next few months. But unlike the professional GIS community, who were really surprised by the traction that Google Earth managed to gain amongst professionals and non-professionals alike, astronomers have a long history of the general public looking over our shoulders as we work. So one thing that isn't going to surprise us is user generated content.

Of course we're in the middle of revolution in astronomy with the virtual observatory finally beginning to bear its first fruit. The arrival of Google Sky isn't really a coincidence, but it is well timed. The mashup I put together this afternoon was really only possible because of that timing, two or three years ago the data wouldn't have been accessible in the same way as it is today.

Update: I'm really puzzled by why people are talking about Google Sky as if it was planetarium software. I think they're missing the point, I don't think the guys at Google ever intended it to be planetarium software. Google Sky isn't about whether you can observe the Ring Nebula from where ever you happen to be standing at the time. It's all about publishing, indexing, and sharing information. Surely that was obvious? It's about collaboration and user driven content, surely?

Update: Another quick hack from me to PLASTIC-enable Google Sky.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Facebook on the iPhone

I have to agree with Mike Arrington over on TechCrunch. The new Facebook site for the iPhone is absolutely beautiful. I fired it up inside iPhoney and it looks gorgeous. For reference, this is what iPhone applications are "supposed" to look like...

CREDIT: TechCrunch
The new Facebook site for the Apple iPhone

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hurricane Flossie

All the best for the guys battening down the hatches ahead of Hurricane Flossie which is currently bearing down on the Big Island...

Hurricane Flossie (KML)

Update: I'm guessing that the earthquake didn't help?

Update: An update from Sam, it looks like the Big Island got off relatively lightly this time around...

Update: Hurricane Flossie fell apart before hitting the big island.

When is an API, not an API?

When it isn't released yet? The general opinion is that Apple will open up the iPhone to third-party developers in October by providing a software development kit (SDK) with Leopard. I don't know anyone that isn't expecting this to happen now that the API has been more or less reverse-engineering and the first "professional" third-party applications are seeing the light of day.

Nobody is selling anything yet, but its interesting to see companies like Delicious Monster are willing to release native applications. Sociologically at least, this is a whole different kettle of fish than individuals releasing terminal emulators and other such stuff. Companies, even uber-cool ones are notoriously conservative. They generally take legal advise before doing stuff like this, and they're presumably pretty sure that Apple legal won't be dropping by to say hello in the near future. Which is interesting, no?

Nokia battery mayhem?

It looks like we're in for yet another round of battery recalls, this time the product recall is for Nokia branded BL-5C batteries used in a large number of handsets. At least two of my handsets are affected by the recall, although fortunately my main phone, a Nokia N80, isn't...

New Apple stores in the UK?

It looks like Apple are planning to open some new stores in both the UK and Australia, and I'm jumping up and down with excitement here, why? Looks like one of them will be in Exeter in the new Princesshay development. An Apple store of my very own, what more could you wish for...

Monday, August 13, 2007

Apples and Oranges?

More rumours that Orange might have already signed a deal with Apple to carry the iPhone in the UK and perhaps Europe.

I must admit I've been waiting for this, Orange is the only operator to have an EDGE network here in the UK. If Apple weren't going to release the iPhone with Orange, then who were they going to use? Unless as other rumours suggest the European iPhone ends up being 3G after all...

Update: More from Ars Technica...

Update: France Telecom (aka Orange) have responded to the rumours, and the associated 1.5 percent rise in their share price, with a simple "No comment", which is pretty much what O2 said...

Update: We can "neither confirm nor deny" the rumours...

Update: Orange says "Nope, not us"...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Eric Schmidt is thinking ahead...

Eric Schmidt talking about Web 3.0 (via Read/Write Web)...

Update: Comments from Nick Carr on Eric's speech.

Closing the iTunes divide?

So just before the press conference yesterday, Ars Technica reported rumours that the iTunes divide might finally be closed. It seems that movies and TV episodes might be coming to the iTunes UK store real soon now,

Trusted sources inside the company have told Ars that Apple plans to introduce movies and TV shows to iTunes UK very soon—as in, a couple of weeks. Things are apparently all set up and ready to go, so it's just a matter of flipping the switch after the dull roar has died down about today's Apple event. - via Ars Technica

It can't be soon enough, I've been waiting for this since October 2005. Without those movies and TV episodes the Apple TV, while available in the UK, is a door stop not a functional product...

The question you have to ask yourself is, why this long?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The new iMac

The new iMac advert, fresh from the Apple special event.

Update: ...and unboxing pictures from Ars Technica. When Steve said "available today" it looks like he really meant it!

Update: There seems to be strong feelings that Apple have in some way crippled the Bluetooth version of their new ultra-thin aluminium keyboard.

The new wired and wireless keyboards

I don't get it, I love the fact that they've made the Bluetooth keyboard smaller, lighter and more lap friendly. Don't you see what they've done? They've turned it into a perfect tool to allow you to control your computer from across the room, which is what Bluetooth keyboard were always meant to be in the first place.

Want to make a bet that that that refresh for the Apple TV that Steve hinted about during the Q&A yesterday means that you can use this new lap-friendly lightweight keyboard to do a lot more than you used to be able to do with the Apple TV than you can now?

Update: Enough said..?


Yet another Apple Special Event

Rumours of a refresh for the iMac, and end-of-life for the Mac mini, have come and gone, and we still don't know anything about the press event later today except that it is going to be Mac related. At least we didn't have to face a round of iPhone and iPod related rumours in the lead up to the event. Well, no more than you'd expect...

The news that .Mac was going to be down during the event sparked some last minute speculation,

Due to scheduled maintenance, .Mac members might be intermittently unable to access some .Mac services from 10 AM to 12 PM PDT on 08/07/2007. We apologize for any inconvenience.

but on the whole most people are waiting for the predicted refresh, in brushed aluminium, of the iMac line.

I'll be following the live coverage of the event, as I'm still hoping for an ultra-light replacement for my 12-inch Powerbook, and lets face it I'm a fully signed up member of the Cult of Mac. But if you don't want to follow the event live, check back here later today and I'll have the high and low-lights for your entertainment.

Update: One thing we won't see (via TUAW) later today,

Update (08:55am PST): The queue is apparently already forming outside 4 Infinite Loop, even if it does just consist of the Gizmodo and Engadget teams,

CREDIT: Gizmodo

Update (09:34am PST): Queuing, the usual suspects...

CREDIT: Engadget

Update (09:45am PST): The Apple Store is down ahead of the event, which pretty much confirms we're looking at new hardware...

The UK Apple Store

Update (09:57am PST): Both Gizmodo and Engadget have gone dark, but Mac Observer is posting live from the auditorium via their iPhone. Show offs...

Update (10:03am PST): ...and Engadget is back with live coverage. It looks like there is a large (iMac sized?) object under a black cover at the front of the auditorium.

CREDIT: Engadget

Update (10:06am PST): Steve is on stage and talking about iMacs, looks like the predictions of a refresh for the iMac were at least partially correct then...

CREDIT: Engadget

Update (10:09am PST): We have new iMacs in glass an aluminium, with glossy displays and in 20 and 24-inch form factors. Does that mean the 17-inch iMac is dead?

CREDIT: Engadget

Update (10:13am PST): Looks like we're hanging onto the 17-inch,

What about the inside? Up to 2.4GHz Core 2 Extreme processor, up to 4GB of memory. ATI Radeon HD graphics card, up to 1TB of hard drive storage. 802.11n and Bluetooth 2.0 built-in. What models will we have? Up until now, 17-inch, 20-inch, and 24-inch. Well, today we're replacing the 24-inch, lowering price by $200, 20-inch at same $1499. replacing 17-inch with $1199 model. - via Engadget

Update (10:15am PST): It looks like Gizmodo has gone entirely dark under the weight of hits, but the Engadget feed is surprising responsive. Well done guys...

Update (10:21am PST): Looks like the rumours about a new ultra-thin brushed aluminium keyboard were spot on,

CREDIT: Engadget

This is the new iMac. Just gorgeous. You can see we have a full complement of I/O across the bottom. USB 2.0, Firewire 400, Fireiwre 800. Slot load superdrive. iSight camera and microphone. Can add memory with just one screw. New iMac will come in two sizes: 20-inch display, and 24-inch display. Both will be glossy. Customers say they love glossy displays. - via Engadget

Update (10:23am PST): It looks like Gizmodo is back...

CREDIT: Gizmodo

CREDIT: Engadget

Update (10:31am PST): Moving up, we have a big update to iLife, and the release of iLife'08 with the new concept of "events" which allows you to manage your iPhoto library more cleanly. Erm, okay...

Update (10:36am PST): Moving on, Steve is talking about .Mac, and what a success it's been. I guess the news that everyone is complaining that it's seriously lagging in features and costs too much hasn't reached Cupertino. Looks like the new iLife'08 is even more tightly tied into .Mac, with easy direct-to-web publication from iPhoto.

Update (10:37am PST): I think I just heard hell freezing over,

This is a true Web 2.0 app. Web app behaving just like iPhoto on my desktop... - via Engadget

did Steve really just say Web 2.0.?

CREDIT: Gizmodo

Predictably it looks like there is some level of integration with the iPhone and you can take pictures with your iPhone and push them directly onto the new .Mac Web Gallery.

Update (10:45am PST): Moving on from the new iPhoto, Steve is now talking about iMovie. Looks like this is an entirely new application, totally rewritten from the ground up with a new UI.

CREDIT: Gizmodo

Update (10:51am PST): Demo time, looks good...

CREDIT: Gizmodo

Update (10:53am PST): Looks like more iPhone integration here, you can watch the movies you publish to .Mac via the new iMovie application directly on the iPhone. So far this really hasn't been, "...all about the Mac" has it? Sure we've had the new iMacs, but he's spending a lot of time talking about the new version of iLife, .Mac and iPhone integration. Are we looking at a hardware related " more thing"?

Update (10:57am PST): Moving on, it looks like iDVD and Garageband have also got an update. While iWeb now has widget integration; Google Maps, AdSense, YouTube. Just drop and drag web page creation...

Update (11:00am PST): iLife'08 costs $79, and is available today. It ships free with all new iMacs...

Update (11:04am PST): Now we're talking, the storage available with .Mac just went up from 1GB to a more reasonable 10GB. It looks like my iDisk finally might become useful.

CREDIT: Gizmodo

Update (11:06am PST): Moving on, we also get a new version of iWork. He's talking about Keynote, with the spiffy new effects they've added, and Pages, with the new templates they've added. Erm, okay...

Update (11:10am PST): Okay, new application. It looks like iWork'08 ships with Numbers, a spreadsheet application to round of the office package. From the sounds of it, it does spreadsheet related things; formatting, sorting, doing formulas, moving columns around, and other such stuff.

CREDIT: Gizmodo

Update (11:13am PST): iWork'08 costs $79, and is available today...

Update (11:15am PST): Tim Cook, the Chief Operating Officer, and Phil Schiller, the Executive Vice-President for Product Marketing, are on stage for a Q&A session.

CREDIT: Gizmodo

Update (11:20am PST): Looks like the Mac mini is sticking around for a little while longer at least,

Q: How is the Mac Mini doing? And are you updating it? A: We are refreshing the Mac Mini and making it even faster. It's already in the online store. - via Gizmodo

Update (11:23am PST): Interesting,

Q: How is Apple TV today? How does it fit into Mac? A:We're here to talk about Mac, we'll have some news for the Apple TV soon, but nothing to talk about today. - via Engadget

Update (11:29am PST): Here's one I wanted to know the answer to,

Q: Will there be multi-touch technology in the Mac? A: It makes a lot of sense in the iPhone, but we're not sure it makes sense in the Mac. We'll categorize it as a research project for now. - via Gizmodo

and that's a real shame, although I guess they didn't deny they're thinking about it..?

Update (11:35am PST): ...and we're done. What, no " more thing"? What's the world coming to? I guess I still don't get a replacement for my 12-inch Powerbook then?

Update (11:39am PST):The Apple Store has just come back up with all the new toys. Looks like they're serious, so that's all folks...

Update: Video of the special event is now online...

With thanks to Engadget, Gizmodo and the Mac Observer for real time coverage.