Archive January 2011

I saw dead people Peter Griffin Jan 14

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The Egyptians and other ancient civilisations used to bury their royalty in tombs encased deep within pyramids.

The BODIES exhibition

The BODIES exhibition

It is sort of appropriate then that the modern ode to the Egyptian pyramids – the impressively triangular Luxor casino and hotel in Las Vegas has at its centre a room full of preserved dead people.

I had the opportunity to pay a visit to the Bodies exhibition when I was in Vegas last week for the Consumer Electronics Show and must say, the US$35 price of admission was well worth it.

It sounds a bit ghoulish and indeed it actually is, to spend an hour wandering around looking a dissected bodies, diseased bits of lungs, livers and hearts, real human beings stripped of their skin and any hint of privacy. But I came away from Bodies with a hugely increased appreciation for how parts of the body work and the sheer genius of human biology.

A couple of real-life parallels last week heightened the experience. I visited Bodies just a couple of days after congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head by a lunatic gunman in Tucson, Arizona – Giffords survived and remains in a critical condition but six others were killed in the massacre. While science journalists like CNN’s neurosurgeon turned newsman Sanjay Gupta tried to explain the impact of a bullet passing through the brain, at Bodies I was able to hold part of a human brain in my hand and chat with a helpful expert about massive brain trauma. The previous night I’d also watched the movie 127 Hours, about a guy who managed to get his hand trapped by a rock in the Arizona desert and ended up having to hack it off with a blunt penknife. Peering at wrists with the skin peeled away revealing the tendons, nerves, veins and bones beneath I was given a deep appreciation for the hellish task the rock-climber embarked on when he opened his penknife!.


One of the most fascinating thing about Bodies is the remarkable techniques they have used to preserve real human body parts and entire bodies. We are not talking about bodies suspended in vats of formaldehyde.

The bodies on display are free of cases, unobstructed by glass. Propped up on stands, their skeletons artfully reconstructed to show the people in various positions, the specimens have been subjected to polymer preservation.  There’s some information on the process on the Bodies Exhibition website. Here’s how the process works:

1.  Anatomists fix a specimen with chemicals to temporarily halt the decaying process. They then dissect it to expose important structures.

2. All of the water is removed from the specimen by replacing it with acetone.

3. The specimen is placed into a liquid silicone mixture within a vacuum chamber. Under vacuum, the acetone becomes a gas that is completely replaced by the polymer mixture.

4. Lastly, the silicone polymer is hardened. The end result is a dry, odorless, permanently preserved specimen containing no toxic chemicals. It retains the look of the original, but functions as if it were rubber.

The bodies are sourced from China and were preserved in Beijing, which has become a world centre of excellence in body preservation. When the exhibition launched, there was some controversy about where the bodies came from. The Vegas personnel were at pains to point out that the bodies are those of anonymous people who had donated themselves to science, but when the exhibition came to parts of the US initially, there was concern that it couldn’t be guaranteed that the bodies were not those of executed or mistreated Chinese prisoners. As I looked at the skinless faces of the bodies, I couldn’t help wondering who they were – and how they had died.

A particularly impressive part of the exhibition focuses on the blood vessels of the circulatory system. Paint or dye has been injected through the circulatory system so you can see the network of blood vessels – it is visually stunning and gives an indication of the complexity of the human body.

Overall, Bodies was a fascinating experience. I’ve seen dead bodies before but seeing them stripped of their skin is something else entirely – not for the faint-hearted but very much for the anatomically curious…

Scibloggers featured on Radio New Zealand Peter Griffin Jan 14

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For the second year running, Radio New Zealand’s Summer Noelle programme hosted by Noelle McCarthy has featured interviews with Sciblogs contributors in its Science Spot series.

rnz logoHere are the interviews so far… (links to mp3 recordings for playback)

Stick blogger Peter Kerr talks innovation

Infectious Thoughts blogger Siouxsie Wiles on viruses and infectious diseases

Shaken Not Stirred blogger Jesse Dykstra on the Canterbury earthquake

Listen out today for an interview with Journeys to the Ice blogger Matthew Wood and also coming up is Seeing Data blogger Chris McDowall – I’ll post audio for those interviews once they are online…

Also check out my RNZ series reporting from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas…

CES tech coverage Jan5, Jan7, Jan 8, Jan 10, Jan 12

CES: Tablet hopefuls vie for attention Peter Griffin Jan 13

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It was amazing how quickly Las Vegas emptied out over the weekend as the 160,000 visitors to the CES show headed home and relaxed holiday makers reclaimed the bars, restaurants and casinos of Sin City.

The quiet tail end of the show gave me a chance to wander the halls of CES relatively unmolested – you needed sharp elbows the first few days of the show as journalists and trade professionals stampeded from one stand to another as product announcements were made and new gadgets unveiled.

So with a bit of post-show downtime to reflect,I’ll be writing a few posts outlining my key takeaways from CES 2011. First up…tablets.

Apple envy aplenty

Motorola Xoom

Motorola Xoom

Numerous companies at CES unveiled tablet computers clearly designed to leverage off the demand Apple has created for such devices with its iPad. None of them, with the exception maybe of one or two, appear to have a real chance of being an “iPad killer”. Analysts at CES suggested up to 50 million tablet computers will be sold this year – on top of around 400 million computers. So its a massive market and while Apple is still tipped to take the lion’s share of the tablet segment this year in much the same way as Amazon initially owned the market for – readers with its innovative Kindle device, there’s plenty of business to go around.

Some of the tablets released show promise – the Motorola Xoom won the best in show award at CES, runs on the tablet-centric version of Google Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) and has a smattering of features the iPad doesn’t which should give it a unique selling point until the iPad 2 arrives with front and year facing cameras. Add in 4G mobile network coverage, a dual-c0re processor, a high-definition screen and an HDMI output and you have a well-featured tablet to rival the iPad. It feels and looks beautiful.

The previously announced Blackberry Playbook also put in a showing at CES and it too boasts some reasonable features including a dual cameras, a 1GHz dual-core processor, 4G connectivity where available and the ability to play Adobe Flash videos (which the iPad annoyingly lacks). Early reviews of the Playbook, which RIM executives say will retail for less than US$500 (think entry-level iPad pricing of US$499) suggest performance is good – its grunty enough to handle sophisticated games, video and applications. But ultimately, it is a 7-inch tablet and I think this is the wrong format to get consumers excited. The limited screen real estate and the proprietary operating system it runs on, will give it limited appeal outside the corporate set.

Samsung Galaxy Tab

Samsung Galaxy Tab

Similarly, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which was on sale ahead of CES, is a slick device, but its 7-inch form factor puts me off. You simply haven’t enough space on a screen that size, especially when you are navigating applications using your fingers. The iPad’s 9.7 inch screen displays an A4 magazine page almost as it should be – anything smaller is a compromise that many will put up with in favour of the lighter weight and greater portability, but will ultimately come to consider it as a poor bridge between phone and laptop.  Samsung is on fire at the moment with its TV range, its Galaxy smartphones and now the Tab – I hope they come out with something around 10 inches – if they do, and update them to the latest version of Android, they’ll clean up in the “other than Apple” space.

Tablet hybrid pile up

Lenovo IdeaPad U1 hybrid

Lenovo IdeaPad U1 hybrid

A number of devices were shown that see laptop convert into tablet or in the case of Acer’s new laptop – features a second touch-screen LCD instead of a keyboard. The idea is that you get plenty of extra screen space and can interact with your computer in the same way as you would a tablet. Dell showed off the Inspiron Duo, which has a screen that swivels around to convert from netbook to tablet. This is fairly conventional, as tablet computers running on Windows have been doing this for years. It is also fairly unimpressive as you are left with a fairly chunky netbook with a tablet interface, running Windows 7 that has not been adapted to the tablet format. Plus, imagine how the battery life will suffer as you attempt to light up two screens instead of one…

These two devices and several other quirky ones shown at CES will have only niche appeal. More successful is the Lenovo IdeaPad U1 hybrid, a laptop that converts into a tablet when the screen portion is completely disconnected. You have a 10.1 inch touch screen that when connected to the laptop runs Windows 7. In tablet mode, Android 2.2 kicks in. Also successful will be the coupling of the likes of the Xoom, Playbook and Galaxy Tab with peripherals such as wireless keyboards, for those who truly want to use the tablet as a laptop replacement. The hybrids do nothing exceptionally well and compromise too much on usability.

Microsoft’s tablet gamble

I was at CES as a guest of Microsoft so I was hoping for great things in the tablet space from them – in particular the debut of Windows 7 for tablet with the apps that have been popular on the Windows Phone 7 platform coming to the tablet format as well. Well, this wasn’t to be. Steve Ballmer in his keynote took a different tack – suggesting Microsoft’s strategy is to make the full experience of Windows available on all platforms. I covered the keynote itself here.

The ARM announcement and progress with system on a chip technology is promising longterm, but leaving Google, Apple and others to own the tablet OS space for the next year or longer is a mistake. People don’t need the Windows experience with its flexibility and power in a tablet format and I’m not sure they want it either. The “app” model has been a game changer in terms of how consumers view software. We can now in seconds, with the tap of a finger, download a piece of software that runs smoothly and delivers rich content to a portable device. That’s an experience that grew out of the App Store and has been phenomenally successful. WP7 is a great operating system for phones – why not just re-engineer it for tablets and make the Windows Marketplace available for tablet applications as well?The ARM deal suggests Windows realises the computing world is changing, but it isn’t quite ready to make the jump to a tablet and smartphone-centric world in the consumer space. It almost calls for a split of Microsoft into two companies – one focused on the enterprise and corporate customers, the other on interatice entertainment, mobile and tablets.

The irony is that Microsoft essentially created the market for tablet computers 10 years ago and adapted a tablet edition of Windows for a whole range of devices. It was always in the prime position to take a step further and develop an operating system designed specifically for the need of the new generation of tablets. Waiting until the release of Windows 8 and soldiering on with Windows 7 on current tablets is a bit of a mistake in my opinion. As CES progressed this became more obvious, with many suggesting to me that Microsoft will indeed follow the Apple-Google approach to tablets, but needs to buy some time to re-jig Windows for the format in a sustainable way (ie: without impacting revenue from the Windows OS).

Other commentators have been chewing over Microsoft’s tablet strategy too…

IT World: Microsoft’s slow, steady tablet strategy a big gamble

ZDNet: The weird world of Windows tablets

Seattle Post: Intel exec blames Microsoft for shortage of Windows tablets

The Guardian: ARM deal will end Microsoft and Intel’s dominance

Peter Griffin attended CES with the assistance of Microsoft

CES: NZ start-up takes out consumer electronics innovation award in Vegas Peter Griffin Jan 10


It was great to see New Zealand start-up Swiftpoint honoured at the CES show here in Vegas for the novel design of its pint-sized finger-controlled computer mouse.

If only we had more companies lining up to showcase world-class tech products at a show like this.I bumped into a handful of kiwis at CES – most of whom were up here buying products to retail back in New Zealand. What we need is more traffic going in the other way – selling our innovations to the mass consumer and business market in places like the US, Europe and Asia.

Grant Odgers runs Swiftpoint from Christchurch and while the company is fairly low profile at home, it is making waves in the US where consumers purchasing increasingly small laptops and net books are looking for better ways of interacting with their computer than the traditional mouse and laptop track pad.

Enter the Swiftpoint, which is a tiny wireless mouse that you grasp with three fingers, sort of like holding a pen. All the controls for scrolling, zooming, clicking and going back and forth between web pages are lined up along the top of the Swiftpoint.

Benefits include:

- Ease of access and maneuverability in a very compact format.
- 2 – 4 weeks battery power off one charge.

To win the CES Innovations Award 2011 in the computer peripherals section is a major coup for Swiftpoint. Critics have been favourably reviewing the device, which retails for US$70

here’s a reviewer’s write-up on Swiftpoint…

CES: Favourite gadgets of the show so far Peter Griffin Jan 08

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Las Vegas: Some 20,000 products are being shown at CES this year.

I spent a fairly chaotic day getting acquainted with a tiny fraction of them and here are my top five favourites so far…

1. The Parrot AR Drone

This thing is amazing – its a carbon and plastic “quadricopter” that you can steer and fly using controls on an iPhone. The thing is amazingly easy to learn how to control – you tilt the iPhone to steer, raise it or lower it to change elevation. If you take your hands off the controls, the AR Drone stabilises and goes into autopilot mode – just watching it do that is fascinating. The four rotors whir like horizontal fans. If someone calls you onyour iPhone while you are flying, it will gently land the drone so you can take the call!

The AR Drone creates its own mesh network between the iPhone and the flying device and the wireless is tremendously responsive. I flew the drone in a dog flight against another player. When you line up at the right altitude and lock your sensors onto your competitor, lasers are triggered and you get a kill. I nearly took the head off a couple of show attendees getting used to the AR Drone, but in no time I was a competent dog fighter! I’m seriously considering bringing one of these home with me – it is endless fun. Price US$299

The AR Drone

The AR Drone

2. Samsung 75 inch 3D LED LCD flat screen TV

This is the most beautiful TV I’ve ever seen. It’s the largest high-definition LED TV in the world, is incredibly thin and if you really want to, you can run 3D content on it. That last feature is the least appealing for me. I just stood there staring at the screen as a series of cityscapes flashed by. The image-quality is breath-taking.It is also internet-enabled. The brushed-steel finish gives the TV an elegenat look. It doesn’t really get better than this at the moment – no price details at this stage, but it won’t be cheap!

The 75 inch Samsung LED 3DTV

The 75 inch Samsung LED 3DTV

3. Samsung Galaxy Tab

I was sceptical about the 7 inch screen on the Tab, Samsung’s Google Android-powered iPad rival. But having had a decent play with one, its incredibly versatile and the screen size isn’t too much of a compromise when it comes to web surfing and viewing applications. More details and all the specifications here. Price: US$299 on a 2 year Sprint mobile contract.$549 with no contract).

4. Maxell 64 GB SD card

The only really innovative thing about this little sliver of silicon is the memory capacity. Think about it – 64GB of storage on a postage stamp sized memory card. That is epic! Price: US$350

Maxell 64GB SD card

Maxell 64GB SD card

5. Panasonic 3D camcorder adapter

Now that we have 3D TVs and laptops that can display 3D video, there’s an impetus to enable consumers to generate their own 3D content. Imagine it – your home movie of that marlin coming aboard is going to really leap out at you when the fish is flapping around in 3D. To do this Panasonic has come up with a lens attachment for its camcorders.

Here’s a review of the camera:

3D conversion lens that records right-eye and left-eye images simultaneously through its two lenses. The right/left images (each with 960 x 1080 pixels) that enter through the lenses are recorded using the side-by-side method. By attaching the lens, and connecting it to a TV that is capable of side-by-side method 3D playback, vividly colorful 3D images can be viewed at home.

Price: US$1,148

Panasonic camcorder with 3D attachment

Panasonic camcorder with 3D attachment

Gimmick of the show

The amazing sand carvings on the Panasonic stand…


CES: Dual-screen laptop sees you tapping on glass Peter Griffin Jan 07

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Las Vegas: One of the hottest gadgets revealed so far at CES is also one of the more unconventional – a laptop that switches laptop keyboard for a second LCD screen.

Judging by the crowds milling around the Acer Iconia its a novel idea with appeal, althought as someone who has spent the last six months tapping away on an iPad screen I can immediately see the impracticalities.

The Iconia is a hybrid laptop-tablet, a format that I doubt is going to relegate the traditional keyboard-based laptop to history but is breaking the mold in a computer market attempting to make up lost ground taken by Apple with the iPad. The Iconia is powered by an Intel Core i5 processor, up to 4GBs of RAM, and Windows 7 as the operating system. It’s form factor is fairly ho-hum, until you load up a web page and see that your  field of view extends vertically across two 14 inch screens.

Even better, you can be working on a document on one screen while watching a video on the other – it handles true multi-tasking. The screens are multi-touch so can handle window resizing, gesturing and multiple fingers on the screen at the one time.

I was barely able to get a finger let alone  a hand on the Iconia today, so I don’t  know what its like to type on. Frankly though, I fail to see the appeal – other than to people working in highly visual industries such as graphic design or photography or for people who do very little keyboard work but want plenty of screen real estate in a compact, portable format. The person demoing the Iconia said battery life performance was “middle of the road” which I’d say is optimistic given it requires two screens to be permanently lit up… no pricing  yet, but I hear its likely to be competitively priced to compete in the tablet market.

The Acer Iconia

The Acer Iconia

CES: Subdued Ballmer looking for Windows everywhere Peter Griffin Jan 06

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Las Vegas: Having watched Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer warming up in the darkened corner of the Hilton Las Vegas this evening, slapping friends on the back and punching the air, I expected him to unleash some of his trademark over-exuberance.

But it was a relatively subdued Ballmer who took to the stage for the opening keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, mirroring perhaps the lack of any major new game-changing technology from the software giant – and uncertain times in the tech sector in general.

Instead Ballmer and his executives spent three quarters of an hour recapping some recent successes – the well-received launch of the Xbox 360 motion controller Kinect, which is changing the nature of video gaming and the progress of Microsoft’s phone operating system Windows Phone 7. They followed up not with a glimpse of the next Windows operating system, which remains the backbone of the Seattle-based company’s business, but a technology roadmap that it hopes will ensure Windows adapts to the increasingly lightweight and portable form factors computers are appearing in.

“Whatever device you use… Windows will be there,” said Ballmer. “Windows PCs will continue to adapt and evolve. Windows will be everywhere on every device without compromise.”

After talking up tablets at CES last year, Ballmer barely mentioned the word “tablet” this year, obviously seeking to steer clear of an area dominated by Apple.

System on a chip

The next version of Windows, Windows 8, will support system on a chip (SoC) computer architecture, Ballmer revealed. SoC is a way of packing numerous components essential to the running of a computer into a microchip. The advantages may include better computing performance, a smaller form factor allowing for greater mobility, better power efficiency and less materials used meaning lower cost computers.

Steve Ballmer at the CES keynote in Las Vegas

Steve Ballmer at the CES keynote in Las Vegas

Need an example to illustrate SoC? This helpful site provides a good one:

For instance, an SOC for electronic control of an automobile’s suspension system will have the following distinct parts: 1) an accelerometer for detecting the car’s motion; 2) an ADC for converting the accelerometer’s analog output into digital data; 3) a digital signal processor for analyzing the digital data; 4) and an output driver system for controlling the mechanical behavior of the suspension system. In an SOC, all of these functionally individual circuits will be contained on a single integrated circuit.

Microsoft confirmed today it is partnering with chip-designer ARM to develop SoC systems and will continue to work on the technology with its traditional chip partners AMD and Intel on the x86 architecture. The CES keynote featured CoS applications from chip partners like NVidia and Texas Instruments to show high-quality performance of basic Windows features like Windows Media playback of HD content and printing in Microsoft Word. What wasn’t shown was a glimpse of what the future Windows 8 user interface may look like.

While there was speculation in the run-up to CES that Microsoft may unveil a version of Windows tailored to tablet computers to challenge Google and Apple in this space, Ballmer’s comments instead suggest Microsoft is playing a longer game, re-engineering Windows for SoC architecture that essentially allows Windows in all its glory to be played on multiple types of computer and boast excellent performance. While Tablet computers running Windows 7 are debuting at CES this week, they are not running an operating system engineered specifically for touch-screen tablet computers in the way the Apple iPad iOS operating system is, or Honeycomb, Google’s version of its smartphone software Android, which has been tailored for tablets.

So Microsoft isn’t falling over itself to try and emulate the success of Apple’s tablet and the App Store that has in the space of a year changed how consumers think of software “applications”. Its preference is to offer a more powerful operating system on more compact devices, using more efficient technology to potentially deliver the same software set across desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone – the same computing experience regardless of the medium.

Whether the strategy will pay off for Microsoft in a year where analysts estimate up to 30 million tablets will be sold, may depend on the momentum Apple generates with version 2 of the iPad and whether Google can repeat the success of Android in the tablet world.

Kinect sales reach 8 million

Ballmer devoted the first part of his keynote address to Kinect, the gesture-based controller for the Xbox 360, which has proven to be a surprise hit for the company selling 8 million units in its first two months on the market.

Kinect is changing the interaction gamers have with their video game consoles, in an extension of what Nintendo achieved with its innovative Wii remote three years ago. But demos at CES showed that use of Kinect will soon extend to using hand gestures and voice recognition to control the Xbox 360 and TV on demand applications that run on it. Demos of TV streaming services Netflix, Hulu and ESPN showed how an Xbox 360 user could browse and play content without touching a remote control. Sadly, none of those services are available in the New Zealand market so such use of Kinect will depend on Microsoft striking deals with local content providers – this could be some way off.

Another use of Kinect that was demoed was dubbed “Avatar Kinect“  and uses the same motion sensing and gesture recognition to mimic a user’s actions in the virtual world where avatars can meet in online chat sessions.

Update for Windows 7

Some useful updates for Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 platform were released, including one button photo-taking from locked phone mode which will impress those who struggle to take timely photos on their phone camera. Copy and paste feature turns up (yes, amazingly this wasn’t implemented before now) and Ballmer revealed that 5,500 applications were now available in the Windows marketplace.

All up then, a credible if unambitious report on incremental changes from Microsoft rather than any change in direction. Microsoft’s power in the tech industry means it can help steer the direction of legions of software and hardware vendors. But with rivals Apple and Google forging ahead with their own plans for mobile phones and tablets the pressure is on Microsoft to ensure Windows expands its relevance beyond the desktop and laptop.

Peter Griffin attended CES with the assistance of Microsoft.

CES: Tech industry plays catch-up with Apple – again Peter Griffin Jan 06

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I’m in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show, the massive tech-fest that usually sets the tone for the year ahead in the world of technology and consumer electronics.

Well, that’s how it used to be at CES, which this year will attract in excess of 120,000 visitors to Sin City. In recent years, the show has been overshadowed by Apple Computer, which until a couple of years ago ran its own MacWorld conference in San Francisco closely timed to CES.

When I was last at CES in 2007, Apple released the iPhone, sucking the the thin desert air out of CES completely and sending journalists rushing to their hotel rooms to find out the details of Apple’s new phone. Since then, the tech sector has been scrambling to catch up with Apple and already that is very much in evidence at the show this year.

The main announcements will come in the next few days, but already several tech vendors have been showing off tablet computers designed to emulate the iPad which Apple released last year and had sold eight million units of in the first six months of it being on the market.

Tech giants take their tablets

The onslaught on the iPad is coming in the form of big-name vendors touting devices running a version of Google’s Android operating system, which to date has been restricted to mobile phones. A version of Android dubbed Honeycomb is set to power a new generation of tablets that will look to gain an edge on Apple by bundling in extra features, such as a camera that would enable video calling from the tablet. Lenovo and Asus today showed tablets running on Android and tonight, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer is tipped to unveil a version of Windows 7 custom-built for tablet computers.

Netbooks orphaned

What is striking about the show this year is the lack of buzz around netbooks – the market segment that was all the rage a couple of years ago with Asus leading the pack in the compact laptop space with its best-selling Eee PC line-up. Asus has obviously sensed the potential for tablets, debuting the Eee Pad Transformer – a mini notebook that can separate from the keyboard to be used as a touch-screen tablet. Essentially, the Taiwanese computer maker is putting a buck each way offering two different formats for consumers. With analysts predicting 55 million tablets to be sold in 2011, it may be a smart strategy. Dell, Acer and Motorola also expected to unveil tablets at CES.

Asus boss Jonny Shih summed up how the wider tech industry views Apple as he unveiled the company’s new tablets at a press conference today:

‘We admire companies like Apple that offer great innovation, but they provide very limited choices for the customers. Different kinds of customers have different kinds of needs, and the best way to better serve them is to provide choice.’

Asus chief executive Jonny Shih

Asus chief executive Jonny Shih

More on CES as announcements are made – so far it is all about tablets, applications that work on tablets and 3D TV without the need to wear glasses…follow my tweets at

Peter Griffin attended CES with the help of Microsoft.

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