20 October 2009

Anti-Wifi Paint

An interesting article at BBC highlights a new invention which puts electromagnetic shielding into paint. They claim it blocks 100 GHz worth of spectrum, including consumer wifi which runs at 2.4 GHz here in the US. My first worry was regarding blocking cellular phones, which tend to run at lower frequencies, but the article presents that as a feature rather than a bug.

Really, electromagnetic shielding is hardly a new concept. Faraday cages are standard installations at most sensitive areas; supposedly to block TEMPEST attacks, although I doubt that's used except by serious espionage folks. The article mentions that movie theaters could use it to block reception during movies, but I think other mechanisms for shielding are probably more practical.

18 October 2009

Cell Phones and Society

An interesting rant on the New York Times homepage brings to mind the fact that cell phones are still very much an emerging part of our society. Cellular phones have only been widely available for less than a decade and they're a constant reminder for how the world has changed in that decade.

Cellular phones are an amazingly intricate piece of technology -- essentially a miniaturized computer with an antenna, microphone and speaker. My first phone was heavy on the antenna, microphone and speaker components; I tend towards thinking that's about all it was. Nowadays, phones are much heavier on the computer part -- my current phone, the Google G1, is capable of emulating a Nintendo of all things, among much more practical matters.

As cell phones have evolved from the domain of the ultra-rich, society has been slow to adapt to them. Just as when email became more widely available in the mid '90s, it took well over a decade to achieve a sort of cultural consensus -- less formal than a hand written note, used primarily when an urgent response is not needed. The article above focuses on an emerging aspect of cell phone use -- people tend to stop walking when they get a call. Apparently this behavior is commonplace in New York, but I have yet to spot it in Washington.

The gradual cultural effects of cellular phones on our society is fascinating. Cellular phones are slowly but surely killing landline phones. This has progressed to the point where, during the last presidential election, many worried that polls were greatly underestimating the support for Obama because polls only surveyed landlines, which are not widely used by younger people. Newer data plan phones allow constant connection with information sources like Wikipedia. Future generations of cellphones will allow people to watch TV on them; my coworker demonstrated this to me the other day via Slingbox and his iPhone.

Interestingly, the ubiquity of mobile devices already makes some media look dated. My wife and I watched the movie Diehard a few weeks ago; the entire setup depended on the police and military being initially unaware of the terrorist's presence, but a single cell-phone call (or even a text message) could've changed that. Diehard is from 1988, only 21 years ago. Even more recent, the TV show 24 featured cell phones in the first season, but even those seemed dated when I saw a repeat of the series a few years back. Nowdays, cellular phones can relay location information, text messages, twitter, and, with only a little innovation, could be used as a widespread sensor network to detect and localize gunshots, fires, or other disruptions.

So my big question is: Where are cell phones taking our society? Some sort of uber-networked utopia? A big-brother-like dystopia where people's movement patterns are tracked via their mobile devices? Will the shortage of available radio spectrum change this or will we communications engineers figure out a way around this?

If you find this stuff as interesting as I do, the novel Halting State, by the inimitable Charles Stross, is a fascinating look at where cell phones could take us in another decade. Also note that my writing hasn't even touched on the effects of SMS or MMS on communication -- stay tuned for more rambling!


My brother, Chris, gave me a copy of Braid for my birthday this year. When it was first released, Braid was hailed as an amazingly innovative blend of a platform game and a puzzle game. Personally, I think it's one of the most strikingly cunning games I've ever seen. In most puzzle-games, you finish the game thinking you're an idiot for having not seen the solution immediately; in Braid, by contrast, you feel like a genius as soon as you uncover the solution to each puzzle.

The mechanics of Braid are simple. You can only do, basically, three different things: Run, jump, and make time go backwards. Almost every puzzle in the game is driven by the last mechanic. Each 'world', of which there are five, introduces another time-related mechanic. The first world has you adjusting to solving puzzles by moving backwards in time, and the third introduces objects (e.g. enemies, platforms) that are unaffected by the moving time backwards. Later worlds introduce more complicated mechanics, but all in the same vein.

Tying the whole game together is a simple story reminiscent of the first Super Mario Brothers game, a hero seeking a lost princess, who he can never manage to find in any castle he encounters. Although the 'hero seeking a princess' story is a classic probably better suited to the 8-bit era of video games, Braid makes it work and even ties it to the time game mechanic. The true depth of the story isn't revealed until the final level, and it blew my mind when I saw it unfold.

Braid is a fantastic game with only one major flaw: It's short. I played through the game in about four hours. At $20, that's a pretty high cost per hour of entertainment, although it compares favorably with many movies. Anyone interested in fiendishly clever puzzles and game mechanics should definitely check it out. Braid is available for Windows (via Steam), OS X (via Greenhouse) and on a wide variety of console systems.

Wheel of Time Progress Update

As I mentioned in my last flurry of blog updates, I started rereading the epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time, written (mostly) by Robert Jordan [note: I say mostly since he passed away before he could complete the final novel in the series]. Since then I've clocked through tons of subway rides, two flights to California, and over 1.5 million words of fiction, which puts me almost half-way through the series.

As I remember from the last time I read these books, book six is where the series starts getting dull. Seeing as I'm about a third of the way through book six, I've decided that I concur -- over 100,000 words into the book (the length of a decent size novel) and no one seems to be in any hurry to do anything. Still enjoyable reading, but the main plot line is moving so slow that it could almost be called glacial.

Part of the problem with this series, I think, is that Robert Jordan tries to have too many points of view in his books. The sixth book has had the story told through at least ten points of view thus far, many of which belong to minor characters. With this many points of view, it's hardly any wonder that the main storyline is moving along sluggishly.

Anyways, I hope to be able to slog through the remaining four published books, possibly in time to get to the first third of the final book, which will be released at the end of the month.