Robugtix: The Animated, Robotic Spider!

OK, how cool is this?! Its a robotic spider, available today for mail order from Hong Kong, (foronly $3,000!). It contains 26 tiny and very delicate servo motors...3 per leg and two for the body. They are so tiny and delicate that you can strip the gears if you put the darned thing down indelicately, as demonstrator (in the video below) Adam Savage recounts when ex.plaining why he built the nifty box to haul it around and work on it! 

If you're a young person, looking for the reason that you (a) should learn how to work with your hands and use tools well and/or (b) learn to program, look no further. Apparently, the guys who built this (who named their company Robugtix) did so not because they wanted to make a robotic spider but to help them better flesh out their motherboard/ they obviously plan on doing a lot more cool stuff. Geesh, just figuring out the math the mimics the natural movements of an animal articulating 28 joints is pretty impressive...I'm exciting thinking about what else they might do!

A "Russian Internet" ? Putin's dream of "information wants to be free"

A new Russian law requires companies to store Russians' data within Russia's borders, out of reach of the NSA, and in reach of Russia's own secret police. We only have to look at recent history in China to see where this is headed, in my humble opinion.

I suspect we can thank Edward Snowden's revelations and the reaction of the world's governments to them to explain this, but clearly Vladamir Putin's Russia is displaying more of an authoritarian control over its citizens that is reminiscent of Iran's or China's governments than it is of Western democracies.

The Russian law utilizes copyright enforcement as its raison d'être, which is nothing new for Putin's regime: when Russian cops seized the computers of independent newspapers under the rubric of hunting for pirated software, they also "just happened to secure" journalists' confidential sources and notes. It allows the state the right to censor the press for alleged infringement.

Russia's new legislation squashes the democracy of the internet to achieve a status similar to that of neighbor China: a huge market for Internet users, with a massive censorship system that can block non-compliant foreign Internet services. In China, this has resulted in companies like Yahoo and Google locating their servers within the grasp of Chinese spies (who used them to hack both the American Internet companies and spy on internal dissidents, prompting Google to eventually leave China), as the only way to get access to the market and compete with homegrown, regime-friendly services. While one can sniff and turn up their nose at such governmental maneuvers as "high handed, totalitarian nonsense that will suffer the wrath of the market", history suggests that free market economies may avoid Russia, but, in the process, convey acceptance of the precedent in the process.

Compliance to access to the Russian Internet market will likely tread down a well trodden path -- a few years' worth of complicity in attacks on activists, assisting imprisonment of people who use curse words (but only if they're the sort of people the Kremlin needs an excuse to jail) -- only to find your company exorcised from the Russian economy when it serves the government's needs, its servers seized, and a locally run business like Yandex or Vkontakte getting your market-share.

Vkontakte? That's the "Russian Facebook" -- the site's founder Pavel Durov was apparently forced to sell his stake in the company earlier this year, after taking part in anti-Putin rallies. The new owner is a Kremlin-affiliated oligarch whose fortune was Kickstarted by fire-sale-priced access to media assets seized from another oligarch who'd fallen out of Kremlin-favor.

We have watched this battle playing out already with such leading hi-tech enterprises such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft doing their best to quietly comply with governmental requests without kicking up too much publicity. No doubt China, Russia and others have taken this into account when assessing if they can get away with such policies onto the world stage.


Congress Unlocks Cell Phones; President Expected to Sign; Will It Matter?

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed bipartisan legislation that would allow consumers to “unlock” their cellphones when switching providers. This companion Bill to that which already passed in the U.S. Senate is expected to be signed by President Obama and is generally acknowledged as affording Americans the freedom to choose the carrier of their choice for the cellphones they purchase, but it may only be significant in that it actually represents bipartisan unity in the 113th Congress, a legislative body sure to go down in history as one of the most partisan and deadlocked in its ability to govern. The current Congress has approved less than 20%, on average, of the amount of legislation of its immediate predecessors...and abysmal record and far more noteworthy than the legislation I'm commenting on.

What American's want to know and, undoubtedly, will make some assumptions about how this bill affects their ability to do so, is how will this legislation free them to buy the cell phone of their choice and then purchase mobile network services to enable it? While I think most thoughtful consumers recognize that the significantly reduced price they are paying for their expensive smartphones (equivalent to room full of computing power in their parents' generation, reduced to (less than) the size of a pack of cards is enabled by the subsidies provided by the mobile carries (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, et al) but, in return, they are obliged to sign up for a two year contract with the carrier, the fat margins on that contract more than covering the up front subsidy on the phone. But my own discussions with people suggests that folks' recollection of this fact is dim, at best, when making purchase decisions.

While the new legislation requires carriers to "unlock" the phones allowing them to be attached to a competitor's network, it doesn't force them to do so before the phone subsidy has been paid for. Currently, most contract phones are locked to the cellular provider that sells them, and consumers must obtain permission to unlock phones – even after the phones are paid off and contracts have expired. Consequently, consumers often need to buy a new phone if they want to switch to a different carrier. Now, once a phone is paid off (or a contract for service as expired, the carrier will be required to unlock the phone allowing it to be connected to a competitor's network.

But, let's be clear: it is the deals that phone providers (Apple, Samsung, etc) strike with the carriers to subsidize the phones that make them affordable (typically ~$100 rather than $500-$600), and the carriers require you to sign up for a two-year service contract to cover the cost of their subsidy, and this bill does NOTHING to change that practice. If Samsung initiates a contract with Verizon to be the sole provider of their next great Galaxy phone and Verizon requires you to sign away your first born to purchase that whiz-bang gadget for three dried beans, so be it: this legislation does nothing to prevent that. It merely requires Verizon to unlock that phone at the end of the contract (that you signed and agreed to to get the phone for something you could afford). No doubt, by then, Verizon will be the sole provider of Samsung's new Galaxy phone with the holographic display that projects a naked image of Miley Cyrus singing her new pop hit - the one you SIMPLY MUST HAVE!

So, caveat emptor. The 113th Congress, and the President, would like you to believe that they've worked together in a bi-partisan fashion (funny how blustering to their constituents is primary, unifying force) to advance the laws and governance of business to keep pace with technology and your lust to consume it. And, indeed, there is utility in this bill - it does force the unlocking of phones...but, practically speaking, this will largely be older phones... ones that are paid for by you. This is legislation that would have been far more useful five years ago than today, you know when the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was still and newly powerful in its terrorization of the general populace . Oh, and it will likely present some obstacles to the phone providers and the carriers in the short term, which could cause the price of phones to rise (unlikely, I think), but it will do little to increase the options for those of you with gadget lust. It will most likely benefit those who are willing to use an iPhone 3 or Galaxy 2, today, with the carrier of their choice. Oh yeah, and it doesn't include devices like tablets with cellular connectivity, merely directing the Librarian of Congress to consider whether other electronic devices could be unlocked legally.

You can read more about it here and here.


Japanese Burger Crocs

This post is dedicated to my newphew, Paul Kohlbry, a PhD student in Baltimore who likes to make fun of my Crocs (I like the ones with the built-in socks as a cozy, winter-borne sandal for California), telling me I look like an old man at the Israeli beach...

The folks who make Crocs have introduced a new model in Japan, inspired by the hamburger:

Australia: Home to "Real Men"

You gotta love our favorite British penal colony, turned sovereign nation (a sobriquet not inaccurate in describing my own country).  Here's a snippet of the captains of two Australian Rules Football (Rugby) teams connecting mid-field:

Clash of the Middlemen!

Back at the turn of the millennium, I was involved with Chemdex, the first successful and large B2B marketplace endeavor. The major disruption that brought Chemdex an almost immediate $6 Billion market capitalization was in displacing the supply chain with the power of electronic commerce, reducing the drag of the middlemen/distributors and providing the power of that efficiency in the form of lower costs to the buyer and higher margins to the supplier. What has become the online retail juggernaut, spearheaded by Amazon, was still young and endeavoring to prove itself, but proving for the world both the efficiencies of the new mechanism and providing a nascent model of how things might be.

More than a decade later, we're seeing what was a brave new world mature into the way things are done and the tried and true forces of the market economy are clashing. I'm referring to the battles we're now witnessing between Amazon and the traditional book publishers, specifically (and currently) Hatchette.  Book publishers are the original "middlemen", the archetype of how distributors can insinuate themselves in an economic food-chain by providing a (ultimately indispensable) high value-added service to producerw of a good and its customers. 

Corey Doctorow, famed author and contributor to, recently penned an article for the UK's Guardian newspaper outlining how Hatchette willingly signed over the control of their electronic books business to Amazon, a decision they now regret. Doctorow's point is that Hatchette allowed Amazon to "usurp control over its relationship with its customers", intimating that it got caught by a trap in US copyright law that gives Amazon control over the digital rights management of the content it provides on intellectual property to its customers. Doctorow's not so concealed agenda is to slam Hatchette's decision, as publisher, to force DRM onto content it publishes. While I must admit to leaning in the direction of Doctorow's sentiments that DRM is the enemy of information in a free society (and a market economy), I do think the argument is a bit too simple, pandering to the currently sky-high emotions on the subject and taking advantage of bone headed business strategy on the part of content owner/distributors and (unfortunately) obscuring the important nuances of this critically important evolving area of business, culture and law.

In short, books published by Hatchette (one of the globe's "big five" publishers) have not been available through as of late. Amazon has taken away the pre-order buttons on forthcoming Hachette titles, and current Hachette titles are not for sale. This situation is a result of the failure of Amazon and Hachette to come to terms on their next ebook sales-deal. Amazon is aiming directly at, and well poised for, taking over the biggest book publishers' role as the de facto means of providing content from creator to consumer. Note that  I said "content" and not books, "creator" and not "author", "consumer" and not "reader".  Book publishing is the exemplar, but the model of, as I'm sure you have figured out by now, the much bigger world of content that includes what we now think of as music, movies, television, et al. The fulcrum for Amazon's leverage in this relationship is that copyright control over an ebook essentially rests with the ebook retailer, the corporate persona who encrypted the content with DRM. This same principal also would apply for music or video. It means, in short, that only Amazon can unlock or remove the DRM from the content it sells *legally*.  Can't an app that "cleanses" the content easily be crafted and distributed? Sure. But it is illegal. The law currently protects the provider of the digital rights management software, as codified in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

Doctorow (one of my favorite authors and journalists, by the way) would have us believe that it is precisely because of Hatchette's success in selling its ebooks through Amazon that is the problem; that Amazon's only contribution was to "run the book through a formatting script that locked it up with Amazon's DRM". Indeed, Hatchette is keenly aware that Amazon is head and shoulders above its competition as a successful distributor of ebooks and it s precisely this success, its reach as a distributor and retailer, that it wishes to leverage to reach Amazon's  customers to further its own objectives as a publisher of content. But Amazon's contribution is not limited to just adding DRM... In fact, it is Amazon's reach that Hatchette's marketing team lusts over; the fact that Amazon has successfully created a retail juggernaut that has brought the technically uninclined, en masse, to the digital table. If profits are to be made here, hand-over-fist or otherwise, it is because Amazon has created the gravitas that brings those customers and turns the key one their desire to plunk down their hard-earned cash on content. Its about a robust retail eco-system that makes it easy to find/discover and purchase what you want, the ability to consume it easily (in fact, enjoyabley and "better" than they had previously) and at a price that caught their attention in the first place. User/Consumer-friendliness is the golden thread binding the customer here, not DRM. What Hatchette, Doctorow and all of us need to comprehend: DRM isn't the object of force here. Its usability...utility. The reason that Hatchette (and the other big publishers...and the big players in the RIAA and the MPAA) come to Amazon instead of just playing with Apple, Google, Kobo, etc, is because Amazon has the customers they covet. Amazon has spent 20 years building a customer locus with the next generation of gravitas. If you are surprised (as Doctorow appears to be) that they exercise methods akin to those of Wallmart in squeezing their suppliers, then you are naive. Wallmart puts the bear hug on its suppliers to squeeze cost (supplier and distributor profit) out of products so they can offer a more competitive/attractive product offering to their customers. As a result, they have a customer base that every supplier HAS to access. I'm no merchant, but this seems like Retail 101 to me.  

While I think that, ultimately, publishers and Amazon will find that removing DRM benefits them with customers (as Amazon has already discovered with music - a move they used to win customers over to Amazon Prime from iTunes in their battle with Apple), it is already apparent that DRM is NOT what's the key attribute here that gives Amazon over the customers that they currently battle with publishers over. It is usability, convenience, price and access. In each, Amazon finds their investments have paid off in creating them.

For those of you who haven't contemplated this tectonic shift in business power with the same keen interest as the "technorati", realize that this really is the modern replay of what happened in the early 19th century with the rise of publishing interests, who held the ability to print books (a capital related concern, mostly) and distribute them to a nearly monopolistic sense. The foundations of this now awesome power are being torn down by the digital technologies we all so love and should illustrate exactly the kind of business threat ALL business leaders should ALWAYS be thinking about. That Hatchette, the other big publishers, Barnes & Noble, the major newspapers and magazines, the movie companies and television networks haven't been thinking this way after watching what's happened to the music publishing industry just illicits a big "tsk tsk" from me. Who is next? If you know, start a venture capital fund. :-)

21 Victorian Slang Terms It’s High Time We Revived

Those who know me well, or at least have been around me a long time, know of my fondness for words and language. When I stumbled across this list ofVictorian slang, I instantly was drawn to it!:

Bitch the Pot
(Pour the tea)
As in: “Hurry up and bitch the pot, would you? I’m spitting feathers here.”

Boiled Owl
As in: “Don’t remember a single thing about last night. Got absolutely boiled owled.”

Quail Pipe
(Woman's tongue)
As in: “Did we kiss? Yes. There was no quail-pipe, though.”

As in: “Oof. Right in the tallywags.”
Other Victorian terms for testicles included: whirlygigs, trinkets, twiddle-diddles.

(promiscuous woman)
As in: “Sure, I dirty-puzzled around a bit at University, who didn’t?”

Cupid's Kettle Drums
As in: "Would you mind terribly if I… had a go on your Cupid’s kettle drums?”
Other Victorian terms for breasts: bubbies, coker-nuts.

Neck Oil
As in: “Go on, it’s Friday night, get some neck oil down you.”

Dash My Wig
As in: “Dash my wig, there’s never anything worth watching on Netflix.”

Tatur Trap
As in: “You’re annoying me now. Shut your tatur-trap.”
(Tatur being short for potato).

(prowling for women)
As in: “I’m married now. My tot-hunting days are over.”

Bit O'Jam
(pretty woman)
As in: “People seem to think Kate Upton is a proper bit o’ jam, but I don’t see it myself.”
Other terms for the same thing included “jampot” and “basket of oranges”.

As in: “That’s easy for you to say, vicar, up there in your cackle-tub.”

Shot into the brown
(to fail)
As in: “I thought victory was guaranteed, but I shot into the brown at the last minute.”

The phrase is derived from shooting. Miss the black and white target and your shot would hit the muddy (ie brown) ground instead.

As in: “Put your inexpressibles on, it’s time to get up.”

(tight trousers)
As in: “No wonder your voice is so high-pitched, what with you wearing gas-pipes like those.”

Tickle one's innards
(to have a drink)
As in: “Come on, stop moping. Let’s go out and tickle our innards.”

(smiling face)
As in: “It’s always nice to come home to your gigglemug.”

Mutton Shunters
(policeman)As in: “Leg it, chaps, the mutton shunters are coming!”

Beer and Skittles
(good times)
As in: “Sure, life is all beer and skittles when you’re in your twenties, but just you wait.”

Bags O'Mystery

As in: “Pick up a few of them bags o’ mystery on your way home, will you?”
It’s a mocking allusion to the fact that the exact content of sausages was not always clear (still a problem to this day, in fact).

As in: “Careful how you sit. You don’t want to expose your crinkum-crankum.”
Popular alternatives included notch, money, old hat, and madge (sorry Madonna).

Sources: Passing English of the Victorian era, a Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang and Phrase, by J. Redding Ware; 1909; Routledge, London, The Public Domain Review,, Victorian London.


10 German Words/Phrases we should adopt in English usage

Two English authors think there are some German expressions that would really enrich the English language. So they translated them for an international audience in their new book, "Denglisch for Better Knowers."

Alexander Massialas Wins Men's Foil Gold at South Korean World Cup

The SK Telecom Grand Prix in Seoul, South Korea, the latest World Cup event for fencing, featured US teammates Race Imboden and Alex Massialas in the final, gold medal bout. That's right: no Italians, no French, no Germans. A couple of Yanks. The US team, both men and women, have come a long way in the last decade! The current World Champion in Mens' Foil, Miles Chambley Watson, and the current #1 ranked fencer in the same event is Garek Meinhardt - like Massialas, an SF native and from the same fencing club as Alex. Meinhardt, the American ever to be ranked #1 in fencing, won the gold at the Tokyo Grand Prix earlier this year, while Massialas and Imboden both grabbed bronze. Lee Keifer, who is from Lexington, KY and fences for Notre Dame University, took the gold medal at the Junior World Championships earlier this year. Kiefer went from being the youngest member of the 2009 Senior World Team at just 15-years-old, to winning bronze at the Senior World Championships in 2011. The win made Kiefer the only athlete in the world to earn individual podium finishes at the Senior, Junior and Cadet World Championships in 2011 year after she won silver medals at both the Junior and Cadet Worlds in April.

Alex, a San Francisco native and sophomore at Stanford University, prevailed and took the gold here in Seoul. Well done, Alex.