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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Pleo: The New Robotic "Designer Life Form"

Pleo Right SideThe next big “must-have” toy this year, may be in the form of a one-week old baby Camarasaurus. One of the co-creators of Furby, Caleb Chung, is putting the finishing touches on a new animatronic dinosaur called Pleo. Eight years ago the Furby doll was all the rage, with sales of over 40 million units. Chung’s Emeryville, California-based start-up, Ugobe (a play on words meaning You Go Become), will be manufacturing Pleo, which is scheduled to hit retail shelves in Q3 2006 just in time for the holidays. 49-year-old Chung, dubbed a ‘modern Gepetto’ by Wired magazine, chooses to design toys in isolation at his Boise, Idaho home, away from the rest of his Bay Area staff. He envisions Pleo as more than just another robotic toy. The main objective of Pleo is to create an emotional attachment with its owner. Ugobe reps say that if you play with it long enough, Pleo will learn just like a dog, cat or small child. Pleo moves just like you'd expect a baby dinosaur to move, and not a robot (although who really knows how a baby dinosaur moved?). If you think that Furby was ‘smart’, you’ll be impressed (or creeped out) when you hear that Pleo will have seven computer brains that control 14 servos and 38 sensors compared to Furby’s two computer brains. This is a quantum leap from the Artificial Intelligence implemented in toys like Furby and Sony's ill-fated, Aibo robot dog. Pleo is the first of a line of “designer life forms” that Chung and Ugobe plan to create that combine the latest in artificial intelligence, robotics, mechanical engineering and toy design. Pleo will have ”neural network'' software -- a program that behaves in a brain-like way as it processes many pieces of information to determine its actions. Another interesting note: Pleo does not have an on/off switch.

All of this cutting-edge technology packed into a 20-inch, Jurassic dinosaur toy seems a great new line of toys or the start of something pretty disturbing. First it’s robotic dinosaurs, what next? The next logical step in the progression of this technology will probably be humanoid “designer life forms.” The main objective of creating an emotional attachment between owner and robot, reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode called “The Lonely.” In this particular episode set in The Lonely Picturethe future, Jack Warden stars as Corry, a criminal from the future, who has been sentenced to solitary confinement for fifty years on a penal asteroid (he has the whole barren asteroid to himself). The captain of a passing freighter, who sympathizes with him, leaves him a box containing a female robot named Alicia (played by Jean Marsh). Warden doesn't take to her at first, but soon he grows very fond of her, and eventually falls in love with her (they only showed him playing checkers and eating dinner with her, but do the math). After a few months go by, the captain of the freighter returns bearing good news: Warden's been pardoned and is free to leave. However, weight restrictions do not permit him to take Alicia with him. Warden doesn't want to leave her, because he feels that she really is a woman. The captain takes out a gun and blows Alicia's face off, pointing out to Warden that all he's leaving behind is loneliness. This Twilight Zone episode is an extreme example of the emotional dynamic that can possibly transpire between people and machines. As the level of complexity and sophistication of robots increases, forming emotional attachments to them will be come easier. Breaking those attachments will become more difficult because robots will be perceived as being “alive” in some small way.

Think about it. What IS the exit strategy to emotionally detach owners from their Pleos? Taking a page from the Twilight Zone book of solutions, there just may be a market for a 5 kg, Cretaceous Period, asteroid to put these pesky little Pleos down realistically… a new, functional, 21st Century version of the Pet Rock. It’s just a thought. Pleo will sport SD memory expansion and will set you back a mere $200.

For more information visit:


CD Review: Pilotdrift – “Water Sphere”

Water Sphere CoverTexarkana’s latest export, Pilotdrift, has recently released Water Sphere, which runs the gamut musical styles from cool, rhythmically-driven, Indie Pop to scary, Fellini-esque, Cabaret tunes. Pilotdrift managed to catch the attention of Polyphonic Spree's Tim DeLaughter and Julie Doyle, who own Good Records. They consigned their first self-released CD, Iter Facere (5 of the 13 tracks ended up on "Water Sphere") at Good Records and shortly thereafter became the first band to be signed to Good Records Recordings that was not a product of DeLaughter. Upon first listen, I could easily tell that these guys defy simple categorization of their music and that little to none of creative soundscapes on Water Sphere were accidental or random studio magic. The fact that Pilotdrift calls Texarkana, Texas home, seemed unusual at first, but then again, the Flaming Lips call Norman, Oklahoma home. Pilotdrift (Kelly Carr – lead vocals/piano/acoustic guitar, Jay Budzilowski – bass, Ben Rice – drums, Eric Russell – electronics/guitar, and John David Blagg – electric guitar) slides comfortably between several musical genres while showcasing their vast lexicon of musical styles and influences. I have to admit, when I first popped this CD into my car stereo and cranked the volume to get the total effect, a few of the songs (“Late Night in a Wax Museum” and “Jekyll & Hyde Suite”) initially gave me the heebie-jeebies just by virtue of their dynamic range and the brooding mood they created. Throughout the album, I could hear likely influences from contemporaries like Supergrass, Radiohead, Mercury Rev, Pink Floyd, the Flaming Lips, and Sigur Ros. Some of my favorite tracks are:

Pilotdrift Group“Caught in My Trap” – An intricate, Alt-Rock Opera in three movements.

“Comets” – A beautifully textured, ethereal tune complete with haunting, breathy choral arrangements

“Bubblecraft” – A cool, medium-tempo, Sci-Fi, Martini Lounge tune with Thom Yorke-ish vocals and a chorus that seems to contain a snippet of musical DNA from the Charlie’s Angels television series theme.

“Passenger Seat” – Rhythmically-driven, Alt-Pop song with tasteful helpings of soundboard experimentation and digital panache. Four minutes and forty-three seconds of this song will leave you wanting more.

Overall Water Sphere is a pleasurable, mind-stretching, musical odyssey from the atmospheric first track, “Caught in My Trap,” to the Radiohead-meets-Andrew Lloyd Webber feel of the last track, “So Long.” This is an exceptional debut album and is hopefully the harbinger of more great music from this Texarkana intelligent and musically inventive quintet. Catch Pilotdrift live as they wrap up their tour with Supergrass: Feb 22 - Los Angeles, CA at Avalon; Feb 23 - San Francisco, CA at The Great American Music Hall; Feb 25 - Seattle, WA at The Showbox; and Feb 26 - Vancouver, BC at The Commodore Ballroom

Visit them online at:

Highly Recommended.


Sunday, February 12, 2006

More Google Rumors: Trogdor, Gmail Calendar, Pervasive U.S. Wi-Fi

Google LighGoogle is rumoured to be working on an Ajax web page editor, a calendar app, and pervasive wireless in the U.S.:

1. Google has a project codenamed Trogdor, an Ajax webpage editor for creating web pages. = geocities except with a javascript page creator.
2. Calendar for GMail, basically like ical in javascript
3. Wireless in every city in the US, not just mountainview - still in early development + legal problems

Background information on Ajax:

Asynchronous JavaScript And XML, or its acronym Ajax (Pronounced A-JAX), is a Web development technique for creating interactive web applications. The intent is to shift a great deal of interaction to the Web surfer's computer, exchanging data with the server behind the scenes, so that the entire Web page does not have to be reloaded each time the user makes a change. This is meant to increase the Web page's interactivity, speed, and usability. The Ajax technique uses a combination of:

XHTML (or HTML) and CSS for marking up and styling information.

The DOM accessed with a client-side scripting language, especially ECMAScript implementations like JavaScript and JScript, to dynamically display and interact with the information presented

The XMLHttpRequest object to exchange data asynchronously with the web server. In some Ajax frameworks and in some situations, an IFrame object is used instead of the XMLHttpRequest object to exchange data with the web server.

XML is commonly used as the format for transfering data, although any format will work, including preformatted HTML, plain text, JSON and even EBML.

Like DHTML, LAMP, or SPA, Ajax is not a technology in itself, but a term that refers to the use of a group of technologies together. In fact, derivative/composite technologies based substantially upon Ajax, such as AFLAX, are already appearing.

Google or not, an Ajax-style GeoCities makes sense. We’ve seen portal-like editors like Dobrado that make light work of page creation by novices. Even Protopage makes a good editor for someone who wants to whip up a quick homepage. We also have many rich text editors being used in production, such as JotSpot’s use of the Dojo Rich Text Editor.

Tools like these not only make basic HTML generation a breeze, but could also help create some Ajax features too. Imagine a Portlet editor using drag-and-drop to set up the link flow. Another example is a Live Search widget, allowing all pages managed by the user to be searched.

Monday, February 06, 2006

CD Single Review: The Voom Blooms – “Politics & Cigarettes”

Voom Blooms Group ShotHailing from Loughborough in the U.K., The Voom Blooms are a four-piece band that creates masterful tunes with Rock and Roll bravado that belie their experience. Having only formed less than a year ago, The Voom Blooms (George Guildford - Guitars/Vocals, Thom Mackie – Drums, Craig Monk – Guitars, and Brett Young – Bass), seem to have tapped into a musical Castalian spring allowing them to create and deliver raw energy and genuine emotion where many fledgling bands fail. Their music, rich with a keen balance of texture, space, and volume, is replete with glimpses of British Culture and eclectic cinematic references. Drawing numerous comparisons to contemporaries such as Bloc Party, Interpol, and the Libertines, The Voom Blooms have defined their own unique parcel of this genre and musical space. Their soon to be released single, consisting of two tracks, begins with "Politics & Cigarettes", a future classic rock anthem. The unassuming intro starts with two tastefully interwoven guitar riffs accented by syncopated, machine-gun snare drum fills. Guildford’s passionate vocals enter the mix declaring:

You can keep all your culture
’cause we have got all our culture
and you can keep your politics
let someone else, get your kicks for you...
(without us, without her, and without...)

its awfully nice that you've stayed
its awfully nice what you've said for us
cause we all had such a beautiful start
cause we have got simple hearts.

if you just hold on, to politics & cigarettes
if you just hold on, to politics & cigarettes
if you just hold on, you'll find...

“Politics & Cigarettes” is a sonically huge song that artfully utilizes smashing dynamics and lyrical swagger to effectively convey a sense of heady, youthful defiance. Guildford says that this song was inspired by a 1978 film by Scottish director Bill Douglas called "My Way Home" and has particular relevance to today's political climate. The second track on the disk, “Thoughts of Rena,” is a mid-tempo number that opens with beautifully deft, spatial guitar riffs and chunks of strategically-placed, sinewy percussion, complemented by soaring melodic vocals:

I thought of Rena yesterday,
i dont know what to say, she got me, oh oh
and i thought of Rena just a moment ago,
she's from a right small town,
where things are so-so.
I thought of Rena,
she's out with John, where'd all these townies come from?
look at em', oh oh.
As i talk to Rena, they've had enough.

Now there's a riot sound,
left, left, right, right, right, left, left.
left, left, right, right, right, left, left.
Now there's a riot sound,
think that i should walk home, yet again.

“Thoughts of Rena” is a perfect example of a song that is greater than the sum of its parts. Guildford enlightened me with the meaning behind the song:

“The song is about falling for a bird, but she's got a bloke already. When you get to the club and she's in there, all your mates are telling you not to talk to her, not to go over to her, but you cant help it, when you do the result is a scrap with some townies and a long walk home 'cause you’re too broke to afford a taxi (a regular occurrence in the town we're from). It’s a bit of a true story really. Some people ask what the left, left right part means. It’s a reference to being punched from all directions as the fight breaks out in the club.”

The Voom Blooms have been generating an enormous amount of buzz due to their Voom Blooms Candid Shotelectrifying live performances. They have shared the stage with the likes of The Paddingtons and Babyshambles (ex-Libertines frontman, Pete Doherty’s new band) and are slated to play some U.K. shows with Mercury Records recording artists, Boy Kill Boy, toward the end of February 2006. Their debut single Politics & Cigarettes will be released on Fiction/Polydor records on March 20th to coincide with their 14-date club NME tour. Armed with a cache of great songs and the power to deliver the goods, The Voom Blooms seem to be on a definite course for Rock stardom. I see an upgrade from taxis to limousines in their future.

For more information visit:

Highly Recommended.

Matt "London Head" Largo


Saturday, February 04, 2006

Book Review: Learn to Program

Learn to Program by Chris Pine is a concise introduction to the world of Learn to Program Coverprogramming using an interpreted scripting language called Ruby. An initial “cool point” goes to Pine for writing Learn to Program around Ruby, which is totally free to use, copy, modify, and distribute. The examples start from the basics of getting Ruby correctly installed and configured for your particular operating system. Although Ruby is mostly developed on Linux, it is a cross-platform language that is supported on many types of UNIX, DOS, Windows 95/98/Me/NT/2000/XP, MacOS, BeOS, and OS/2. I ran the examples on my Windows XP laptop without any problems, using a simple, free text editor called Textpad for some of the examples and the command line to round out my experience. The best part of it all…all of the programming tools were free! Gotta love it.

Pine aptly starts out with the essentials for most newbies to programming: data types, arithmetic operations, variables, and variable assignments. I found the overall approach and programming examples to be fun, detailed, and loaded with little tidbits of information, which gave great insight into the “how” and “why” of things. Pine’s examples and explanations throughout Learn to Program were great at illustrating the power of Ruby and programming in general, without having the overtly silly and annoying tone typically found in the “Dummies” series of books.

Learn to Program progressively and painlessly takes the reader through increasing complex (for most newbies) programming concepts such as methods, classes, objects, recursion, and flow control. To reinforce the concepts in each chapter there are sections called “A Few Things to Try”, which were both interesting and amusing. One of the more interesting topics involved writing simple programs to read, write, save, and load files using YAML. (YAML is a format for representing objects as strings). It’s always fun to learn how to dig around in various files to extract and manipulate information. This should also come in handy when managing log files on several OpenVMS servers I manage. Yes, there is a tested version of Ruby (version X1.8-1X014) for OpenVMS Alpha V7.3-1 and V7.3-2! The final chapter of Learn to Program tied all of the concepts together and introduced the use of blocks and procs as a step beyond using custom methods. The proc examples were an eloquent introduction into the more conceptually challenging topic of passing objects into methods and returning objects from methods. I remember learning the power of passing objects to and from methods in a college Java course (years ago), only after we were taken through the paces of writing programs the “dumb” way without knowing how to do this. I wish I had read this book before I took that class.

Learn to Program is an excellent book for anyone who has an interest in learning to program. It is written for true beginners, who have little or no programming experience. Surprising enough, Pine magically manages to go from “What is an integer?” to full-blown object-oriented programming in less than 200 pages. Another bonus is that you will be learning Ruby, one of the newer, (in my opinion) sexier programming languages currently in circulation (i.e. COBOL=not sexy, Ruby=sexy). Decide for yourself:

“Hello World” Program Examples:


100300 BEGIN.
100500 DISPLAY "Hello world!" LINE 15 POSITION 10.
100600 STOP RUN.
100800 EXIT.

puts ‘Hello World!’

Learn to Program is thoroughly engaging and informative and manages to painlessly convey some pretty sophisticated programming concepts that can benefit both novice and more experienced programmers. If you want to learn to program or want a great introduction to Ruby, Learn to Program belongs on your bookshelf.

Matt "Recursion" Largo


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

CD Review: The 88 - "Over and Over"

Over and Over CD CoverThe 88 pull out all of the stops on their latest CD, Over and Over. They gratuitously dig into the universal Pop collective, showing influences from the late 1960’s to contemporary fair. From my first listen to Over and Over, I could tell that the 88 had all of the prerequisites for a great Pop band. Every song seems meticulously constructed to meet Pop standards. There are great melodies, and flawless vocals and harmonies on every track. The first track, “Hide Another Mistake,” is an instantly gratifying, upbeat tune that begins with a tight guitar and drum intro, speckled with a few bass guitar glissandos for good measure. The Marc Bolan-ish (ala T-Rex) vocals play like an finely-tuned instrument, complementing the rhythmic backdrop. After this song finished playing, I immediately checked to see if lead vocalist, Keith Slettedahl was born on September 16, 1977, the same day that Marc Bolan died. Slettedahl’s vocal style on Over and Over has got to be more than coincidence. “All ‘Cause of You” is a mid-tempo, bouncing ballad that has equal parts Rock, swoon, and jangle. I can imagine that the live version of this tune is a killer crowd pleaser, especially with the ladies. A quick glance into the audience in the direction of a group of receptive ladies at the right time during the opening verses…

“I've been sinking through the drain of love
lift my eyes to skies of up above
listen to me this is how I feel
since I knew you all my thoughts are real
you're the only one I wanna do
everything's new and it's all ‘cause of you.”

…is probably like fishing with a stick of dynamite. “Bowls” has a groovy arrangement that utilizes space and showcases Slettedahl’s soaring Glam Rock vocal style. This song owes its fundamental catchiness to Carlos Torres’ melodic McCartney-like bass lines and Adam Merrin’s psychedelic keyboard work. This sounded like it could possibly be a remake from an old T-Rex album or a hidden track from The Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. “You Belong to Me” is an atmospheric acoustic that extols the power of love over the imperfections of the lovers. Slettedahl’s sings:

“I could tell an antique lie
full of all the things I want to hide
but that would only lead to the truth
you belong to me I belong to you.”

The acoustic guitar intro in this song is a direct lift from Big Star’s “The Ballad of El Goodo”. I wasn’t sure if this was done in homage to Big Star, or if it was done because their fan demographic wouldn’t know anything about Big Star or Alex Chilton. I’ll give The 88 the benefit of the doubt since both songs are thematically similar. Nevertheless this is a great acoustic number.

Overall, there’s not a single “throw away” song on this album and there are more hooks on these tracks than there are in your grandpa’s tackle box. These twelve solid tracks that show that The 88 have advanced degrees from Pop University, with minors in Retro Music Studies. Even though they seem to The 88 Group Shotuse the same formula for some of the songs (e.g. “All ‘Cause of You” and “Coming Home”), Over and Over track for track, is a consistently good, enjoyable album. To their credit, The 88, know the value of live performance and touring to build street credibility. I give them extra “cool points” because they acted as Elliott Smith’s back up band for a live performance of “Can’t Make a Sound” and because they wear suits and ties. You gotta give props to Indie bands that have a dry cleaning bill (unsolicited hint: FeBreeze can reduce the number of trips to the dry cleaner for all of you suit and tie wearing bands). I hear flashes of brilliance on this album as well as the echoes of such greats as Big Star, T-Rex, and Beatles, in the vocals, arrangements, and in their musical vocabulary. At times they remind me of a less horny version of The Knack. In any case, it’s no crime for The 88 to wear their influences on their sleeve. The 88 seem to be doing everything right from both a musical, image, and marketing standpoint. I can tell from their pristine recording that their live show probably has a welcome, rough edge and that they are each first-rate musicians. Although they’ve amassed a list of accolades and positive press as long as my arm, the true test of a consequential band is their ability to grow beyond their influences and continuously progress creatively without losing their fans. Time will tell. Maybe 25 years from now bands will be channeling The 88.

For more information visit:


Matt “Cosmic Dancer” Largo


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