Apple set to transform the world… with headphones?


It has been a mostly inspirational week in technology, with a couple of tech titans showing off some truly amazing futuristic technology.

First up is Google, which on Tuesday took the wraps off its own self-built, self-driving car. While the search giant has been working on autonomous vehicles for some time, the difference with this one is that it isn’t a repurposed car with a bunch of tech strapped to it. Rather, it’s built from the ground up as a robot.

That means it has no steering wheels or pedals, just a start and stop button and a screen that shows its route.

Project director Chris Urmson outlined Google’s plans for the new vehicle in a blog post:

We’re planning to build about a hundred prototype vehicles, and later this summer, our safety drivers will start testing early versions of these vehicles that have manual controls. If all goes well, we’d like to run a small pilot program here in California in the next couple of years.

The company also released a vehicle showing seniors, children and even blind people going for test drives:

Not to be outdone, Microsoft also showed off some amazing technology on Tuesday evening at the inaugural Code Conference in California. The company is busy working instant translation into Skype, and appears to be having some success.

As shown during an on-stage demo, Skype vice-president Gurdeep Pall – speaking English – had a real-time conversation with another Microsoft employee, who was speaking German. The service itself translated their words into each others’ respective tongues, then read them aloud like a virtual translator.

The associated feature discusses how this sort of technology has been a long time in the making and the staggering challenges it has faced. It doesn’t work perfectly yet, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Check out the video – things get interesting around the three-minute mark.

And then there’s Apple. The company finally made its purchase of Beats official on Wednesday, announcing that it has acquired both Beats Music and Beats Electronics for a combined $3 billion.

“Music is such an important part of all of our lives and holds a special place within our hearts at Apple,” said Apple chief executive Tim Cook in a statement. “That’s why we have kept investing in music and are bringing together these extraordinary teams so we can continue to create the most innovative music products and services in the world.”

To put the week in perspective: Google shows off cars that can drive blind people, Microsoft demos technology that allows people from disparate cultures to communicate with each other, and Apple buys some middling headphones and one of a logjam of music streaming services. Hmm. Okay.

Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference is next week. After being shown up in the innovation department by its two biggest rivals, the pressure cooker of expectations just got a whole lot more intense.

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Posted by on May 29, 2014 in apple, Google, microsoft, music, robots, skype


Why I love R2D2 (and why you probably do too)

r2d2I had the good-timing fortune of being at Disney World in Florida a few days ago for a “Star Wars weekend,” the now-annual month-long celebration of the movies held at the Hollywood Studios park. Part of the festivities included a parade of characters from the movies and some of the actors who voiced them. While it was nice to see the likes of Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett) and Warwick Davis (Wicket) in the flesh, my favourite moment was when R2D2 wheeled down the parade route making his trademark beeps and bloops.

He was obviously being controlled remotely by someone nearby, but I didn’t care – seeing “him” made me giddy and even a little misty-eyed. It activated some sort of child memories in me.

Then I remembered that it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. I had the same reaction the first time I saw Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace back in 1999. I couldn’t help but squeal with joy when R2 made his debut in the prequel, saving the day as usual.

Fans of the original trilogy had been waiting a very long time for more Star Wars, me included, and it turned out the thing I had missed most was that plucky little droid. Watching the parade at Disney World years later, I had an odd epiphany: I love R2D2. Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by on May 28, 2014 in movies, robots, Star Wars


Watch Dogs’ timeliness: is it luck or genius?


Tuesday is a big day for video gamers as the long-awaited hacker thriller Watch Dogs finally hits stores. If the record pre-sale orders are anything to go by, the latest blockbuster from Ubisoft Montreal will doubtlessly be one of the biggest global releases of the year. Oh, it also might be helped by the fact that it’s an excellent game – check out my full review over at

As I mention there, Watch Dogs captures the zeitgeist of our era perhaps better than any other video game in recent memory. At a time when angst over security and government spying on civilians is at an all-time high, a game about the perils of having everything interconnected hits perfectly. It’s an amazing sign of prescience by Ubisoft developers, who started working on Watch Dogs six years ago, well before anyone had heard of Edward Snowden.

The protagonist is Aiden Pearce, a street thug turned hacker who is betrayed by his underworld colleagues. As a master hacker, Pearce can do just about anything with his smartphone – he can empty out innocent bystanders’ bank accounts, control the trains and traffic lights of the city and eavesdrop on conversations happening in private residences. He can enrich himself or set his enemies up for big falls, all with just a couple of apps on his phone.

Over the course of the past year, I interviewed some of the core developers behind the game on several occasions. It was interesting to see how their thinking and confidence levels about Watch Dogs‘ subject matter evolved, especially as the Snowden revelations unfolded starting last summer.

“We were looking at where the world was going,” lead writer Kevin Shortt told me a year ago, recalling the first creative meetings on the game back in 2008. “We were all in a room having a meeting and we all put our phones down on the table. We were all very aware of how connected we are. That was what interested us: how far are we going with all this connectivity?”

There was angst at the time about the promise and peril of uber-connectivity, but it still existed as something of an abstract concept.

“I don’t think we want to come away saying it’s a bad thing, we want to come away saying what does that mean for us?” Shortt said of the game.

Senior producer Dominic Guay also said at the time that the team’s confidence in what they were doing grew steadily as many of the topics they were covering became more and more commonplace in the real world.

“We saw it through development as confirmed, where every day I’m getting new emails from researchers about how technology being comprised or hacked somewhere else,” he said.

The first Snowden revelations broke just a few weeks after those conversations. I talked to Guay a few months later and his demeanour had changed. At the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, he found that he had to explain how interconnected everything was and why that might be a problem. A year later at the same event, the team was almost jubilant that they had been on the right path.

“[Snowden] made it a lot easier. We don’t have to explain what we’re talking about anymore,” he told me in March. “Most people have an opinion about it, which is awesome. That’s even better. It made our game more relevant.”

Call it luck or call it smarts – either way, Watch Dogs may turn out to be the most talked about game of the year since it turns the spotlight on a very real-world issue, which is unusual for a genre that often deals in space aliens and dragons.

The funny thing is, even though Guay and his colleagues have been knee-deep in creating a world where the downside of current technology is readily exploited by bad guys, he’s still optimistic about it in the end.

“The promise is outweighing the peril, otherwise we wouldn’t all be using those devices. We wouldn’t all be so ready to jump on our PC to simplify our lives,” he said. “But we need to talk about the flaws too. I’d be a lot more worried if no one was talking about the flaws. It’s the best way we have to keep our shield up and find our balance.”

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Posted by on May 27, 2014 in privacy, ubisoft, video games


Hey Tim Hortons, stop destroying your donuts

tim-donutsForget security agency spying, forget net neutrality. There’s a far more serious concern that needs immediate national attention: Tim Hortons is massacring our donuts.

As the image above so horrifically depicts, the chain is destroying its lovingly crafted pastries by putting them into bags than then strip off their delicious toppings. The result: if you order a Chocolate or Maple Dip, you’re likely to end up with a plain donut and a bag full of goo.

This has been going for some time, as InsideTimmies has previously reported. In a society where there are robots on Mars and neurally controlled artificial limbs, this is unacceptable. Surely we have the technology to keep our donuts intact.

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Posted by on May 26, 2014 in food, tim hortons


Entrepreneurs taking advantage of new pot laws


The marijuana laws in Canada are changing and the entrepreneurs are already lining up to take advantage. And many of them are using technology – some old and some new – to peddle their wares.

In British Columbia, the B.C. Pain Society opened up a pot vending machine just a few weeks ago. For $50, buyers can get a half-ounce baggie dispensed in just a few seconds, much like they would a chocolate bar or bag of chips. Besides the convenience, at least one aficionado says the prices are a steal.

The machine is technically illegal, according to Health Canada, because the B.C. Pain Society doesn’t keep tabs on who’s buying or how much. New pot laws that came into force on April 1 allow for people with official prescriptions to buy marijuana from approved suppliers. The machine apparently skirts or contravenes several requirements.

On the more straight-and-narrow front, there’s Canvas RX, a new website that seeks to connect prescription holders with official suppliers. All you do is select your symptom and the site returns a list of suppliers and strains that might be right for you.

Selecting “stress,” for example, turns up 17 different types of weed from four different suppliers, such as Afghani Bull Rider from the Whistler Medical Marijuana Company.

“CanvasRX operates much like an online marijuana pharmacy,” says co-founder Ronan Levy in a release heralding the site’s launch. “Because pharmacies in Canada cannot carry marijuana and the dispensary model is prohibited by the regulations, we step into fill the knowledge gap by providing patients and doctors with the information and resources they need to best utilize this treatment option.”

Meanwhile, the federal government is leaning toward decriminalizing weed while some opposition parties are pushing for full legalization, much like what has happened in U.S. states such as Colorado and Washington. One can only imagine what new types of businesses will arise should further steps be taken.

Colorado’s legal dispensaries raked in a whopping $14 million in sales in their first month alone – what happens when some enterprising individuals start applying things like mobile apps and robots to the business?

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Posted by on May 22, 2014 in law, robots


Review: Sika fence post foam a big labour saver


Over the past two weekends I’ve been engaged in some rather heavy physical labour: I’ve been building a new fence in my backyard, mainly for aesthetic reasons but also so that the wife and I can let our cat outside without it being menaced by the neighbour’s giant dog.

I hadn’t done any real carpentry since high school shop class so I went into the project with some pretty basic thinking – the process of building a fence can’t have changed that much in the history of building fences, right? Dig your holes, stick some posts in them, nail together some cross-beams and attach the boards. It seems relatively straightforward.

That was the case for the most part, but we were surprised to learn that some modern technology has actually entered the equation. While stocking up on the requisite supplies, we inevitably came to the question of how to secure our posts in the ground. Since time immemorial, the answer to that has been concrete. But lo, there’s a new option in town: foam.

The Home Depot guy suggested something called Sika Post Fix as an alternative. As per the website, it’s “a two-part, pre-proportioned polyurethane resin which when mixed produces an expanding foam” that fills the hole and then solidifies into a base that’s as solid as concrete. Naturally, this appealed to the nerd in me so we picked up seven pouches, one for each post.

The process couldn’t be more straightforward. The mix comes in two attached-but-separate pouches; you simply squeeze one into the other, then mix up the whole pouch for about 20 seconds. Then, you cut a small hole and pour the liquid into the hole. That’s when the magic happens.

The liquid instantly congeals into a bluish foam that then expands quickly upward, taking about two minutes to fill the hole. It’s pretty much exactly like those baking-soda-volcano science projects we used to do in grade school. About two hours later, it’s rock solid, except with any excess material on the surface, which is relatively brittle and can be easily carved away with a knife.

I’ve never used concrete so I can’t really compare it to the Sika foam, but the wife and I were both deterred by the notion of having to mix and pour it, then cleaning up afterward and waiting a full day for it to dry. The foam is made for people like us: painfully easy-to-use, no mess and fast-acting.

We’re also not positive how the foam is going to stand up to our horrific winters, so we’re putting a good amount of faith in Home Depot’s decision to sell the stuff in Canada in light of that fact. That notwithstanding, I couldn’t recommend the foam more – it made a relatively difficult project a tad bit easier.

It’s not cheap, though. Each pouch costs around $15, with its manufacturer suggesting that each one can fill a three-foot hole. With concrete, you’d need about two $6 bags each, meaning that the foam is slightly more expensive in theory.

In practice, though, we ended up needing about two pouches per hole, which was considerably more costly than concrete. But after the back-breaking work of digging holes and the rock-and-root excavations that inevitably followed, it was money well spent.

Here’s a video showing how it works:

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Posted by on May 21, 2014 in review


Humans 3.0 lands a Canadian publisher


I’m very pleased to announce that my upcoming second book, Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of a Species, has found a Canadian publisher. Goose Lane Editions, which has published such amazing Canadian writers as Noah Richler, George Elliott Clark and Douglas Glover, will be releasing Humans 3.0 in early 2015, alongside the book’s U.S. launch by Lyons Press.

I’m obviously stoked, especially after meeting with publisher Susanne Alexander, who very clearly gets the book. In a nutshell, Humans 3.0 examines how technology has affected the various levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs over the course of human evolution. The book takes a statistical look at how technology has changed prosperity, health, relationships, religion and happiness, among other things, then filters it all through a pop culture lens.

It’s a technology book for people who aren’t necessarily into technology – an analysis of how we’re changing because of the things we’re creating, without all the annoying jargon or boosterism that’s often found in tech writing.

So why go the traditional publishing route rather than self-publishing, which is all the rage these days? I’ve seriously considered that question over the past few months and was actually poised to do it on several occasions. I did, however, want to see what sort of interest my book might generate with publishers first, and to see if any impressive offers might arise. To my surprise, two publishers stepped forward, resulting in a minor bidding war. Alexander ended up impressing the heck out of me with her understanding of the book and release plan for it.

To be honest, knowing that a traditional publisher likes your book and wants it is edifying – it’s nice to know that after putting so much work into it, it’s good enough to warrant attention from the so-called gatekeepers. Self-publishing is also a giant risk where all your hard work can easily vanish into a void. With the traditional route, I’ll at least have a printed book that I can hold in my hands and that will sell at least a few copies.

I’m still very jazzed about trying self-publishing, but obviously not with this project. With luck, I’ll have something with which to give it a go before the year is out.

I’ll have some more exciting announcements to make regarding Humans 3.0, including additional territories, very soon.


Posted by on May 20, 2014 in books, evolution, lyons press