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Summer Stuff

Technology Review empties its beach bag of gadgets, gizmos, and other entertainments.
August 1, 2005

Podcasting Made Painless

It wasn’t so long ago that publishing a Web log (blog) required some Web programming skills. Then along came Blogger, software that made blogging easy enough for the masses. Blogger became so popular that Google bought it in 2003. Substitute “podcast” for “blog” in the preceding sentences, and you’ll understand the vision behind the new Web-based podcasting tools developed by Odeo, a San Francisco startup launched by Blogger cocreator Evan Williams and his former neighbor, Noah Glass.

Podcasting, for the uninitiated, is the hot independent-media trend of 2005; amateur broadcasters record their own news shows, commentary, or interviews on whatever subjects they choose and put the audio files on the Web. Anyone with an Apple iPod or other digital music player can subscribe to the shows and download and listen to them. Unfortunately, being a podcaster has, until lately, also meant being an expert in digital recording and mixing.

In May, I visited Williams’s office around the corner from San Francisco’s South Park to try out Odeo’s service. Just as Blogger did for blogging, Odeo turns the process of making a podcast (a basic one, anyway) into something any semicompetent PC user can handle. It also takes all the pain out of finding and downloading podcasts (Apple has promised that the next release of iTunes, its music organizer, will do this, too; but it won’t produce podcasts). And it will be at least partly free. The audiences of millions that podcasters have been craving may arrive soon.

The neatest part of the program is Odeo Studio, which runs inside a Web browser and converts a PC into a rudimentary recording studio. I used it to produce my own podcast, which you can find at this Technology Review web page and at Making a podcast was as simple as clicking “Record,” talking into the PC’s built-in microphone (you can also use an external headset), then clicking “Stop.” Clicking “Publish” placed the podcast in my own “channel,” to which others can subscribe. What was a tedious process is now quick and mildly fun.

Odeo will no doubt cement Williams’s reputation as one of the founding fathers of the personal-publishing revolution. And it may not be long before Google comes knocking again in South Park.

Hacking the PlayStation Portable

Hoping to topple Nintendo from its decade-long leadership in the handheld gaming market, Sony this spring released the PlayStation Portable (PSP). Ironically, it may give Nintendo stiff com-petition, not because of its wide-ranging built-in applications, but because of its many security flaws. Hackers have exploited these loopholes to install a variety of unauthorized applications on their PSPs, from Web browsers to TiVo viewers, making the device more versatile than Nintendo’s game-oriented DS.

Out of the box, the PSP is already more than a game player. It has MP3, movie playback, and photo-viewing capabilities. But even these features aren’t enough for a subculture of frenzied gadgeteers. Hackers have widely distributed detailed online instructions that show how to crack the PSP’s encryption by punching in codes using the PSP’s buttons. The instructions are easy to follow and complete with how-to visuals. Using the PSP’s wireless connection, users can then download software for RSS feed reading, PSPcasting, and many other applications. To close these loopholes, Sony has developed security patches that are included in its new game software and install themselves automatically when a user loads a game. But this is only encouraging hackers to find new holes.

The PSP’s security weaknesses may have contributed to its phenomenal success. It sold 500,000 units within the first two days of its March release and twice that in its first six weeks. Nintendo’s new Game Boy Micro and improved DS come out later this year, but their sales may suffer, since they don’t offer the multimedia options and innate hackability of the PSP, making them attractive only to gamers. After dominating living rooms for more than a decade, Sony is poised to take over backpacks as well as briefcases. The PSP is available for $249.

Playing with the Force

This spring, Technology Review staffers gathered to watch a new Star Wars film, directed not by George Lucas but by Shane Felux, a 33-year-old graphic designer and Star Wars fan. The $20,000, 40-minute saga Star Wars: Revelations begins after the end of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and chronicles the Empire’s attempt to eradicate the Jedi. Thanks to Lucas, Felux made a very Star Wars-like movie, with storm troopers, light-saber fights, and even Darth Vader. Yet Felux never saw a dime from the project. Lucas allowed him to make his film only if he promised to show it for free. Still, Felux got something out of the experience: a chance to hone his craft and get recognition for it.

Felux is hardly alone. Lucas has opened up part of his Star Wars universe for fans who want to make films. For the last four years, Lucas has endorsed a film competition hosted by AtomFilms, an online storehouse of movies, trailers, and shorts. This year’s competition drew more than 100 entries and has gotten so popular that the Cannes Film Festival recently screened 12 past finalists or winners. But Lucas is not condoning a free-for-all. All filmmakers, whether part of the competition or not, must follow at least two rules: don’t make any money from the project, and don’t harm the franchise (which can be a difficult rule to adhere to, since it’s not clear what Lucas thinks will harm the franchise).

While Lucas has ultimate control over his Star Wars intellectual property, he is giving up-and-coming directors the ability to test their chops in front of a large audience. (There were more than one million downloads of Revelations in the first week of its release.) And if more film properties are offered up for creative reuse, it’s likely that this network of filmmakers will grow until it is vibrant and sophisticated enough to produce not just more fan films, but originals like Clerks, which helped launch the career of the now well-known director Kevin Smith.

Thumbless Text Messaging

Billed as the first speech-to-text mobile phone in the United States, the Samsung P207, released earlier this year, allows users to dictate text messages instead of keying them in. Unfortunately, this little clamshell has a tough time translating even the simplest phrases correctly.

I spent three minutes training the software, developed by Woburn, MA&ndashbased startup VoiceSignal, to recognize my voice by saying 122 words into the phone. To com-pose a text message, I had to speak slowly, with distinct pauses between words. When I tried to dictate the sentence “Meet me for lunch,” the phone interpreted it as “Means for lots once.”

I gave the phone a second chance, repeating the voice recognition training in a quieter room. This time, it only got one word wrong, replacing “meet” with “let.” Still, the slow pace of dictation and the high number of errors made the feature cumbersome. The phone was, however, terrific at recognizing phone numbers and names, making autodialing more convenient. Like speech-to-text software for PCs, which still hasn’t lived up to the promise it showed in the 1990s, software for cell phones will need a few more generations before enough of the kinks are worked out to make it truly useful. The Samsung phone is available through Cingular for $99.99 with a two-year contract.

Who Wants Tickets?

I always thought the Internet might curtail conventional ticket-scalping – the for-profit reselling that is restricted or prohibited in 27 states. Efficient online sales would widen the retail bottlenecks that arguably worked to the scalpers’ advantage. Then, honest resellers would meet buyers online. This may be happening, but if a recent experience with, a ticket resale site, is any guide, the Internet is also making scalping efficient and anonymous.

A friend of mine – we’ll call him “Jim” – who lives in Boston used StubHub to clear a $169.40 profit on a pair of extra tickets to a Green Day concert. First, he went online to Ticketmaster and bought eight $36 tickets to the Grammy-winning band’s April 30 show in Amherst, MA, paying $68 in service charges. Then he registered on StubHub for free and priced one pair at $310. A few days later, a fan from a Boston suburb bought them for $304. (Jim had agreed to let StubHub lower the price over time.) After the buyer paid for the tickets, StubHub e-mailed Jim a FedEx shipping label with the buyer’s address and StubHub’s San Francisco address as the return address. Using this label, Jim sent the tickets anonymously to the buyer. When the buyer told StubHub he’d received his tickets, StubHub pocketed 15 percent ($45.60) of the sales price and released the rest to Jim via PayPal, the online payment service. According to its website, StubHub collects an additional 10 percent of the sales price and the shipping fees from the buyer.

The buyer had technical difficulty with the website, and the sale was completed over the phone with a StubHub agent. But no one asked Jim if he had the ticket broker’s license required by the state of Massachusetts or noticed that his price far exceeded the state-mandated cap of $2 above face value, plus a reasonable broker’s service charge. When told of Jim’s transaction, StubHub’s CEO Jeff Fluhr said, “We have a very clear and very strict user agreement that clearly states that you need to obey state and federal laws.” (Jim says that he did not read the user agreement.) StubHub uses a California return address for administrative reasons and hides sellers’ identities to prevent loss of business to side transactions, Fluhr said.

New research suggests that online ticket reselling is common. Dan Elfenbein, a University of California, Berkeley, economist, has looked at online football ticket scalping and found that 1.6 percent of all NFL tickets are resold through alone. Not only has law enforcement been absent online, he says, but prices have been higher in states with antiscalping laws, while the number of transactions has been lower. Fluhr, though condemning the illicit use of his site, conceded that the laws are “great for our business.” What his customers don’t realize, though, is that sometimes it’s better to deal with the hawkers on the street. Jim observed that on the night of the Green Day show, street-corner sellers barely recouped face value.

Sunburn Alert

I’ve long relied on the three-beer rule for limiting my sun exposure during the summer, but a skin patch called SunSignals, which changes color when exposed to sunlight, showed that I could fry my epidermis faster than I could drink a single brew.

The thumb-sized, yellow adhesive patches are designed to turn dark orange when they have absorbed a certain amount of UVB light (the type of ultraviolet radiation that causes sunburn), telling wearers to get out of the sun, put on more clothing, or slather on more sunscreen. (The sensors are not meant to replace sunscreen.) With more than one million new cases of skin cancer diagnosed each year in the United States, the patches are a sensible reminder of our fragility.

Unfortunately, my patch changed color after only 17 minutes in the Los Angeles sun, barely enough time to finish a drink. My companions fared a little better, lasting 23 and 27 minutes before the sun-fear factor kicked in. While the kids in our group got a fun science lesson from the stickers, SunSignals seem more of a novelty than a technological breakthrough. It’s still up to sunbathers to decide whether they trust the sensors and want to keep reapplying sunscreen every 20 minutes. SunSignals are available in selected drug stores and supermarkets; a package of 18 can be bought online for $4.99.

The Shape of Things to Come

Bruce Sterling has enlightened emerging-technology watchers for almost 30 years, first as a science fiction author and later as a journalist. His latest nonfiction book, Shaping Things, is a rambling, rambunctious exploration of the future of humanity and its relationship with technology. Sterling describes two scenarios: one where technology helps establish social justice and create a cleaner, safer, richer world, and another where we lose control over how technology is used. Which scenario we end up with depends on how we, as a society, design future information networks and the devices connected to them.

In much of the book, Sterling describes how we are approaching the new age of “Spimes,” which he defines as free-flowing data that can be easily plucked and processed by “Wranglers” (what we call end users today) wherever and whenever they are needed. The networks and machines that store and carry the data will be so intelligent that interacting with them will be automatic. Maintaining this constant, free flow of information will require that everyone is able to interact with, modify, and rerelease applications within the network. If governments and corporations are made responsible for designing future networks, technological development will slow drastically, and the few, rather than the many, will control access to information.

Despite Sterling’s insistence, near the conclusion, that he isn’t arguing for a utopia, the book reads like a religious primer, one meant to appeal to the emotional ideals of hackers and help them redouble their open-source and free-software development efforts. Sterling’s arguments are quite different from the legal framework Lawrence Lessig presents in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Richard Stallman’s advocacy of free soft-ware, and Nicholas Negroponte’s technology-for-all stance. While all of these utopian visions tend to be idealistic, Sterling’s is the most practical. He doesn’t completely rule out governmental and corporate control of information technology; he just calls on citizens to exert greater influence over its design, which, if done correctly, should free us from the drudgery of maintaining networks and machines and give us time to work toward the common good. The book will be released in October and sells for $21.95.

Shooting Blanks

For better or worse, modern science has left women responsible for all but two methods of birth control. Women, I’m sure, would love to offload some of that responsibility on men. The problem is that many men dislike condoms, for obvious reasons, but consider vasectomy a little too permanent. So far, their gender hasn’t had any alternatives.

But soon it might, in the form of a male variation of the birth control pill. The first medicinal male contraceptive will likely be a subdermal, hormone-releasing implant, and it could be available in five years. The hormone is progestin, which is also found in the current women’s pill. In men, it blocks chemical signals from the pituitary gland that tell the testes to secrete testosterone and produce sperm. Of course, low testosterone can mean mood swings, dwindling sex drive, and the ego-sagging possibility of shrunken testicles. So supplementary testosterone will be necessary.

The most advanced clinical trial – which began early last year with 350 European men and is run by the drug companies Schering and Organon – is testing matchstick-sized implants in the upper arm. Testosterone is injected in the buttocks every 10 to 12 weeks. In the trial, a doctor gives the shots. However, a prescribed product will allow women to, literally, stick it to a husband or boyfriend.

Earlier trials showed that progestin stops sperm production in most men, but only after two months of treatment. Sperm-making is back to normal within three months of the treatment’s end. In these trials, the treatment was about 98 percent effective in preventing preg-nancy, a rate comparable to the female pill’s.

It’s questionable to what degree men will want a drug that interferes with the production of their beloved testosterone. Even if men agree to the drug in principle, they may not go for the implants and needles. Those men who prefer their own pill will have to wait at least 10 years before it becomes available.

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