General (63)

Smart Wind Chimes

Lufdesign presents the design concept of a wind-bell that swings to sound (instead of electronic reproduction) when a message is received. The chime body and pendulum may display message content and name of sender.

[flash] [video link]

[kudos Gizmodo]

End of the World

Has the Large Hadron Collider destroyed the world (including this blog)?

(Alternate opinion.)

Early Copy Protection

If you enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s geek-historical-fiction Quicksilver and haven’t discovered David Bodanis Passionate Minds, then run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookseller or library. This real-life account of the turbulent relationship between two premier minds of the Enlightenment is not to be missed.

Voltaire du Chatelet
images c/o Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons

The author gives an account of copy protection used by Voltaire. Printers were suspected of making several thousand extra copies of his books and keeping the profits for themselves. He asked the Prauts of Paris to print a few hundred copies of the first half of Zadig and ship them to him for safe-keeping.

What he neglected to tell them was that under similar secrecy he’d had a like-minded printer in Lorraine prepare a few hundred copes of the second half. He now collected the two sets of unbound pages, hired a few nimble-fingered local women, and had them do all the binding and sewing. The swindlers in Paris and Lorraine had been outswindled: he now distributed, through trusted business associates in Paris, small numbers of exactly the edition he wished.


We have been experimenting with 3-D imaging, after viewing the rather impressive wiggle stereoscopy at cursivebuildings. The wiggle viewing method uses an animated GIF to alternate between left and right images, easy to view in a web browser with no additional hardware. Here is an example from Wikipedia Commons:

Wiggle stereogram

We use a single camera on a tripod, with a “standard slide bar” from Bogen Manfrotto for quickly moving the camera position approximately the spacing between your two eyeballs for left and right photos. camera mount slide bar

(Some photographers recommend a spacing of 1/30 the distance to the object photographed, and a few experiment with large distances for a hyper-stereo effect.)

Garden wiggle image
Garden wiggle stereograph

The open-source software ImageMagick may be used to create the animated GIF. A command line invocation to produce the animated GIF might look like:

convert -loop 0 -delay 20 -dispose None left.jpg right.jpg -layers Optimize stereo.gif

When the wiggle becomes tiresome, alternate methods for viewing stereographs are available. We haven’t mastered the cross-eyed viewing or parallel viewing methods requiring no hardware. We did find this lorgnette stereo card viewer comfortable, effective, and inexpensive.

Garden stereograph
Garden stereograph for lorgnette viewer or parallel technique


Happy tenth birthday to Windows 98 (codename Memphis), released June 25, 1998.

Even now we still hear from Win98 users, running current or previous versions of our products. (We don’t officially support this OS anymore, but if it still works for you, then great!)

Word Artistry

Gaze at a “word cloud” generated by Wordle for recent blog post entries:

Related post: Cloud


From the Associated Press news wire:

Giant asteroid hurtles toward…


More Adventures in Product Development

The new-ness of a project is a few months past, and you are slogging through the minute details of a graphical user interface, while tracking down an obscure bug that causes random crashes every few hours, on top of struggling with a recalcitrant operating system API. Suddenly you are struck with an AHA! moment and are blessed with an idea for a totally cool new product, technically sweet, completely “diggable”, likely to generate truckloads of cash.

Let’s put the current project on hold for a few days. We can do a quick feasibility analysis, maybe hack together a proof-of-concept. The old project will keep– after all, it’s only for a few days. You reason that the break will actually stimulate your productivity and allow you to return to the old product rejuvenated and energized.

Resist temptation, old friend! Time-to-market is critical. But you keep thinking about the new shiny idea. In the back of your mind you sketch out control layouts, even muse over ad copy. If you give into impulse and start on new before finishing the old, or worse yet work on both projects in parallel, what is to prevent you from having an even newer idea in three weeks and experiencing the same dilemma yet again?

Have I done this? Guilty, guilty! But I’m getting better discipline with more experience. What helps for me is to write out new ideas in a notebook, immediately when inspiration strikes, with the bold header “PRODUCT IDEA“. Now that the idea is saved on paper (and for me, the physicality of writing on paper is important here– typing won’t do) the cool product-to-be isn’t rattling around inside my brain as a distraction and loss of morale. In a sense I’ve given my brain permission to stop obsessing over the exciting new and resume the harder work of finishing an existing task. Starting a new project is a reward for finishing something,… anything. And writing down ideas mean the product isn’t forgotten, just saved until we can get to it.

Product ideas are cheap, penny a gross. Finished, timely projects are gold. Remember I said to write down new product inspirations immediately? I count one hundred sixteen separate new product ideas since January 2000. Running out of ideas is unlikely; running out of completions is assured.

Previously: Adventures in Product Development

Adventures in Product Development

With eight current software titles, thirteen years in business, plus several additional programs OEMed by other companies at one time or other, we thought it might be fun to talk about failed products. At Sagebrush, every project kick-off starts with a new notebook. The bookcase behind me has a shelf of notebooks with zero net sales, to serve as reminder/warning/inspiration/goad. In no particular order, here is a list of incompletions. Names are obfuscated, product descriptions are non-specific (in case we dust off a project and hit “Restart”), but perhaps we can convey an idea of the twists and turns of real-world product development.

Axxxxxx used sound in a novel way to control a computer. It was a cute idea, but not terribly practical. We marketed the title, but sold zero units, so the title was quietly withdrawn. Benefits/Lessons: Technology developed for this project was reused for our most successful title at that time, allowing us to stay in business.

Txxxxx used hardware currently on many computers to do a useful and novel task for which the hardware was not originally designed. The hardware was not a precise fit for the task, had buggy Windows drivers, and later the hardware became vestigial and started disappearing from new computers. We made a working prototype, but limitations were significant, and we judged most users would prefer a different solution. Recently this project restarted when improved hardware was discovered. We planned to sell a hardware-software bundle, but the price of hardware was too much to compete against alternate solutions, so we shelved it again, but not before burning a few additional man-months. Benefits/Lessons: A new sales strategy will spur development of several new products.

T2xxx used technology from Txxxxx to prevent numerous interruptions in a work week in a most satisfying manner. We got a prototype working, but federal regulations changed to remove the interruption just before we finished version 1.0 . Benefits/Lessons: Life is hard.

Ixxxxxx was a departure in our product line in being aimed at software developers and not audio/music related. Several similar products were available from competitors, but we could have a market advantage by producing much smaller file size than the competition. As Internet speeds and disk sizes increased, the potential market window closed before we could get very far with the large technology investment we needed to make a good tool. Benefits/Lessons: Stick with what you know, or be very fast.

Rxxxx used technology related to Ixxxxxx above, but was a different tool potentially useful to software developers and content providers. Someone else produced a similar freeware tool, later open source, that removed our incentive to complete. Benefits/Lessons: We killed this early enough to avoid much pain. If you must kill, kill early.

Mxxxxxxx re-used some of our existing code to improve upon an existing operating system function. Later improvements in sound card support made this obsolete before we could complete. Benefits/Lessons: Looking back, what were we thinking??? It was technically sweet, but no one would have paid good money.

Rxxxxxxx is similar to an existing product, but works on a different computing platform. We got a prototype working, but the many program features would require extensive testing. Soon after first prototype, sales of the target platform plummeted. Benefits/Lessons: We improved our method of partitioning code, used for several later products.

Axxxxxx used the computer to implement an expensive piece of dedicated audio hardware. We got an early prototype working, but sound device latency for most sound cards made the product unusable. Benefits/Lessons: We really should have done more latency testing before playing with a cool GUI front end. We were able to reuse some code on a project currently in development.

Mxxxx worked like an existing product, adding streaming over a network. Our atypical requirements forced us to create our own streaming method, instead of an off-the-shelf solution. Our solution was not reliable. Benefits/Lessons: Streaming is hard.

Rxxxxxx worked similar to an existing product, with Internet streaming instead of hardware. A working prototype was too slow for regular use, we weren’t certain about restrictions imposed by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and the industry went in a different direction, partly due to regulations issued by the Copyright Office. Benefits/Lessons: Cool GUI elements were reused in later projects. A method of interfacing to other programs was copied in two products.

Ixx was developed in parallel to Rxxxxxx, using video instead of audio. It worked, but was too slow to be pleasing to operate. Benefits/Lessons: Beware of doing projects in parallel. Switching back and forth may be fun and keep energy levels high, but the consequence of double-failure is huge.

Cxxxx combined video and real-time processing in a novel way (at least for general-purpose PCs). A working prototype worked, barely, but not reliably enough for deployment. Eventually we might revisit and solve the main technical issue. Benefits/Lessons: Code for text overlay was salvaged for our latest product.

And there you have it: more misfires than current products. I didn’t even realize before completing this post. Forget we said anything.

Tech Support 3

The New York Times’ tech guru David Pogue tells of actual tech support calls on a “Best Of” CD compilation.

Caller: Hey, can you help me? My computer has locked up, and no matter how many times I type eleven, it won’t unfreeze.

Agent: What do you mean, “type eleven?”

Caller: The message on my screen says, “Error Type 11!”

[kudos boingboing]


Related: Tech Support, Tech Support 2, Tech Support Film Festival