SciBlogs

Archive September 2009

GNS – latest on the Samoa quake Peter Griffin Sep 30

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A useful update from GeoNet on the earthquake in the Samoa Islands this morning.

The dramatic picture below charts the amplitude of the quake.

Source: GNS Science

Source: GNS Science

Audible books not so listenable Peter Griffin Sep 29

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A few weeks back, succumbing to a barrage of advertising on my favourite tech podcast TWiT, I signed up to Audible.com, the talking book service run out of the US.

audibleAudible has been plugging away with digital book downloads for ten years now, but seems to really have taken off with the rise of the iPod and the iPhone – and its acquisition last year by online retailing giant Amazon.com. The range of books that have been converted to talking book form (60,000 and counting) is impressive and Audible has secured some talented readers to take on the latest best sellers and a swathe of classics too.

Apparently Audible’s studios are based in New Jersey and the company has secured a string of Broadway actors to head over to read the audio book adaptations as a way of earning extra cash between shows. Most new best sellers pop up on Audible while the print version is still in hardback, so you are literally making a choice between buying the book to put on your shelf, or taking the audio version and storing it on your computer or digital music player.

In terms of the technology, you can’t really fault Audible. The website makes it very easy to browse books, buy them and line them up in the Audible download client. I have my downloads set up to transfer straight to iTunes where I load them onto my iPhone. But Windows Media and a range of other software clients and audio devices are supported.

The pricing isn’t bad for New Zealanders, given the currently strong Kiwi dollar. Currently I’m two months into a three month deal that offers an Audible gold subscription at a discounted rate of US$7.95 (NZ$11.15) per month. That will go up to US$14.95 (NZ$21) per month at the end of next month.

At that price you generally get enough new credit per month to buy a new release audio book. So far, I’ve headed for the back catalogue, picking up Story by Robert McKee and the collected short stories of Richard Matheson, whose most famous long-form work is the novel I Am Legend.

With the discount period drawing to a close I’m mulling over whether to keep up my subscription to Audible. To be honest, I’ll probably ditch it. That totally comes down to taste – and perhaps a bit of neuroscience (where’s Fabiana when I need her).

Talking books are a hit and miss affair. When you get a good reader, a pacy book, a story that flows well and lends itself to being read aloud, there’s nothing better. I find I have less and less time to read these days, so being able to listen to a chapter on the way to and from work has great appeal. The problem is that not all books make for compelling listening. Story, for instance, which is read by McKee himself, has the effect of lulling me to sleep. Matheson’s stories in spoken form are split down the middle – half are really gripping, the other half are yawn-inducing.I find my mind wandering, my attention slipping as a professional American voice jabbers in my ear. The next thing I know a jingle is playing, signaling the end of the chapter, a chapter I missed in its entirety.

The Amazon Kindle

The Amazon Kindle

One of the appealing things about the Audible monthly subscription was the prospect of getting a spoken version of the Wall Street Journal delivered to my iPhone each day. I could catch up on all the latest news on the way to work and start the day well-informed. It hasn’t worked out quite that way. Partly that’s down to the time zone – the updates come through in the evening, but mainly its down to the uninspiring nature of the reading. News articles read aloud don’t really make for compelling listening – once again I find my mind wandering.

It’s hard to explainwhy audiobooks don’t really work for some listeners. Harold Bloom the literary critic has come up with the best explanation I’ve been able to find so far: “Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear,” said Bloom.

“You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.”

Oddly, podcasts seem to be a different kettle of fish, I can listen to them happily for hours. So I’ll stick to the podcasts (which are generally free anyway) and take my books in paper form from now on – at least until the Kindle arrives and delivers books over the air straight to my electronic tablet in digital ink. That will be another test of human behavioural adaptation entirely…

Skeptics hammer 1080 documentary Peter Griffin Sep 28

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The Skeptics Society conference held in Wellington over the weekend was a fascinating affair that left me pleasantly surprised.

I had feared a series of slightly smug, self-serving lectures lambasting religion and anything else not explained conclusively by scientific fact. What I experienced was a room full of incredibly intelligent and open-minded people discussing some of the big science-related issues affecting society.It was only when a lone grand stander started mouthing off about UFOs and cures for cancer that the skeptic disdain was fully unleashed – and rightly so.

The Science Media Centre recorded the presentations and will be posting the audio on its site over the next couple of days. Among the highlights for me were Bernard Beckett’s delightful debunking of evolutionary psychology, Matthew Dentith’s evaluation of conspiracy theories as a “species of belief” and Dr John Robinson’s angry but sobering plea for us to take seriously the looming problem of overpopulation. Dr Robinson was interviewed yesterday by Graeme Hill on Radio Live on the subject – the audio isn’t online yet, but I’ll post a link as soon as it is.

Mention should be made of the the Skeptics’ awards – the Bent Spoon which is handed out to the creators of what is considered the worst example of science communication produced in the past year and the Bravo awards, which applaud good critical thinking displayed in reporting.

The documentary “Poisoning Paradise – Ecocide in New Zealand” which condemns use of 1080 poisoning to control possum populations, was slammed by the skeptics as encouraging a political push to stop 1080 poisoning that isn’t based on sound scientific facts.

Among those in the media winning praise from the skeptics are the Dominion Post’s Rebecca Palmer for a piece on the recent mataku court case. Close Up’s Hannah Ockleford received a mention for a piece investigating the dubious sales tactics of an Australian company that was blaming New Zealand water quality on all sorts of ailments. Veteran reporter Rob Harley and colleague Anna McKessar won praise for their documentary The Worst That Could Happen about “the increasing tendency for accusations of accessing computer porn to be made on unfounded grounds, and how it can have devastating consequences for people”.

Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch show, put together by Colin Peacock and Jeremy Rose each week also won praise for continually taking the media to task for its failings

All up, a weekend that encouraged critical thinking, intelligent debate and arguments based on sound science. There has got to be value in that.

Cutting the landline – a progress report Peter Griffin Sep 20

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A few months ago I make the faithful decision to ditch my under-used home phone line, wave goodbye to Telecom and the sluggish Go Large broadband plan and head for a naked DSL connection on Orcon.

As I explain to Simon Morton on Radio New Zealand’s This Way Up programme, naked DSL is a digitally enable phone line that can carry broadband internet but not the analog phone service most phones rely on.

A few plans are in the market offering naked DSL services, meaning you don’t have to pay monthly phone line rental, just pay for the broadband. This arrangement is handy for those of us who are taking advantage of deals like Vodafone Best Mate to make mobile calls cheaply or alternatively, those who are comfortable making Viouce over internet protocol (VoIP) calls. After a few months use of a dedicated 04 calling area Skype number, effectively making the internet my phone, I’ve got to say the experience has been largely a positive one and at least cost neutral one.

In fact I am saving some money over what I was stumping up to Telecom each month, though it isn’t a massive saving – in the region of 10 – 15 per cent. What is impressive however, is the greater flexibility I have to communicate the way I want to, taking advantage of instant messaging, digital voice mail, video calling and online account management as part of a mix of regular telephone services.

It isn’t just for geeks either. It used to be that the quality of Skype was fairly flaky and that using it for anything other than computer to computer use was too much of a hassle. However, most laptops come today with fairly good quality inbuilt speakers and a web camera, so you can make a decent quality hands-free call just by talking into your computer screen. A number of Wi-fi enabled mobile phones, including several Nokias, virtually any modern Windows Mobile device and the iPhone, all have Skype software clients. The version for the iPhone is particularly nice and means that I can make and receive calls to my 04 number via the internet without racking up mobile bills.

While the bulk of Skype’s features are free, I paid to have a dedicated local number (15 euros a quarter) and I also pay in the region of $8 a month for unlimited calling to landlines in New Zealand (or up to 600 minutes a day under Skype’s fair use policy). If I want to make calls to landlines in other countries, say my sister in London, I can do so from my computer, mobile phone or Philips Skype handset I have kicking around the house.

Other services on the market allow VoIP type functionality and call savings but still aim to give you the conventional telephone experience – Xnet VFX is still probably the best known service on the market. By using a dedicated Linksys router with some software on it, you can plug your ordinary phone into the router to make calls over the internet from your existing phone number. Slingshot has a similar service, while a new service called 2Talk from the founders of CallPlus/Slingshot goes more down the Skype route, offering a sofphone and a client for VoIP calling from Nokia handsets.

Is the technology ready for prime time? It isn’t for everyone, but a new generation of telephone users are bored with the old analogue telephone – that’s why they spend so much time texting and instant messaging. They want the addaded bonus of “presence” – knowing whether the person you are trying to call or message is online, gone to bed or too busy to take calls. And they want better visibility on their calling costs – preferably in one place online. Increasingly it looks as though Google’s Voice will take more of a challenger role against Skype serving this burgeoning demographic. As the technology improves, data caps loosen and people become more comfortable operating in the always-on environment of broadband, VoIP services and the functionality they offer will become the norm.

Cutting the landline – a progress report Peter Griffin Sep 20

No Comments

A few months ago I make the faithful decision to ditch my under-used home phone line, wave goodbye to Telecom and the sluggish Go Large broadband plan and head for a naked DSL connection on Orcon.

As I explain to Simon Morton on Radio New Zealand’s This Way Up programme, naked DSL is a digitally enable phone line that can carry broadband internet but not the analog phone service most phones rely on.

A few plans are in the market offering naked DSL services, meaning you don’t have to pay monthly phone line rental, just pay for the broadband. This arrangement is handy for those of us who are taking advantage of deals like Vodafone Best Mate to make mobile calls cheaply or alternatively, those who are comfortable making Viouce over internet protocol (VoIP) calls. After a few months use of a dedicated 04 calling area Skype number, effectively making the internet my phone, I’ve got to say the experience has been largely a positive one and at least cost neutral one.

In fact I am saving some money over what I was stumping up to Telecom each month, though it isn’t a massive saving – in the region of 10 – 15 per cent. What is impressive however, is the greater flexibility I have to communicate the way I want to, taking advantage of instant messaging, digital voice mail, video calling and online account management as part of a mix of regular telephone services.

It isn’t just for geeks either. It used to be that the quality of Skype was fairly flaky and that using it for anything other than computer to computer use was too much of a hassle. However, most laptops come today with fairly good quality inbuilt speakers and a web camera, so you can make a decent quality hands-free call just by talking into your computer screen. A number of Wi-fi enabled mobile phones, including several Nokias, virtually any modern Windows Mobile device and the iPhone, all have Skype software clients. The version for the iPhone is particularly nice and means that I can make and receive calls to my 04 number via the internet without racking up mobile bills.

While the bulk of Skype’s features are free, I paid to have a dedicated local number (15 euros a quarter) and I also pay in the region of $8 a month for unlimited calling to landlines in New Zealand (or up to 600 minutes a day under Skype’s fair use policy). If I want to make calls to landlines in other countries, say my sister in London, I can do so from my computer, mobile phone or Philips Skype handset I have kicking around the house.

Other services on the market allow VoIP type functionality and call savings but still aim to give you the conventional telephone experience – Xnet VFX is still probably the best known service on the market. By using a dedicated Linksys router with some software on it, you can plug your ordinary phone into the router to make calls over the internet from your existing phone number. Slingshot has a similar service, while a new service called 2Talk from the founders of CallPlus/Slingshot goes more down the Skype route, offering a sofphone and a client for VoIP calling from Nokia handsets.

Is the technology ready for prime time? It isn’t for everyone, but a new generation of telephone users are bored with the old analogue telephone – that’s why they spend so much time texting and instant messaging. They want the addaded bonus of “presence” – knowing whether the person you are trying to call or message is online, gone to bed or too busy to take calls. And they want better visibility on their calling costs – preferably in one place online. Increasingly it looks as though Google’s Voice will take more of a challenger role against Skype serving this burgeoning demographic. As the technology improves, data caps loosen and people become more comfortable operating in the always-on environment of broadband, VoIP services and the functionality they offer will become the norm.

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