Monday, March 21, 2005

Just Around the Corner...

Any admirer of the Tom Clancy genre of computer games has witnessed, although on screen, the dangers of urban warfare. These games, specifically the Rainbow Six series, have placed gamers in realistic tactical situations, with such objectives as eliminating terrorists, rescuing hostages, and disarming explosives. All emphasis is placed on realism, and just as in real life, one shot can kill. The true suspense lies in what awaits behind each corner, making teamwork, patience, and experience essential.

Although I have never experienced more than a backyard game of paintball, it is easy to acknowledge the many dangers that lurk in an actual battlefield. Although just a game, Rainbow Six focuses on the ease in which a mission can deteriorate into SNAFU- after only one mistake- one missed enemy. Such thinking and understanding has motivated U.S.-Israeli developers behind CEO Amos Golan, to create the CORNER SHOT system- to provide SWAT teams and soldiers in urban combat with a distinct tactical advantage. The key is to know what lies behind each corner, before exposing the soldier. Intriguing? I think so.

The apparatus itself is relatively simple, and resembles a quasi-assault rifle. The front of the system is designed to house a pistol, which incidentally is mounted with a camera. This camera feeds video into a color monitor located near the trigger of the gun, which flips out in the same way as the screen on a digital camera. The trigger is connected via remote to the shooting mechanism of the pistol. About halfway through the system is a swivel point, controlled by the fore grip on the bottom of the system. This allows the operator to swivel the pistol ninety degrees in either direction, and essentially see what the pistol “sees,” through the monitor. The result is to allow the soldier to know what lies behind each corner and eliminate threats prior to entering a dangerous situation.

As good as this sounds, I am still skeptical about a few aspects. It will be interesting to see if any accuracy is lost in the process of aiming through the camera apparatus. CORNER SHOT, however, insists that accuracy remains high. In addition, soldiers who use this will be sacrificing the firepower that comes with a submachine gun (Heckler and Koch MP5) or assault rifle (M4), for that of a pistol. This could play an important factor in close quarters combat, when pistols will not suffice to penetrate armor. The developers have stated that they also have a model to house an M-16, however pictures have not yet been released, and it is not clear, in my opinion at least, how such a system would be balanced for the operator. Notably, there is also a model that houses a personal grenade launcher, for 40mm of explosive fun.

Despite these reservations, I believe that the system could have a bright future for tactical operations, as it becomes further integrated into training programs. The degree to which it expands strategic capabilities simply cannot be overlooked. The system has an array of additional features, all of which can be viewed at the CORNER SHOT website. A picture gallery and video are also available. With the increasing importance of urban warfare, in Iraq and elsewhere, it is interesting to see the coinciding development of military technologies. The system is already being incorporated into military and police forces throughout the U.S., Israel, Russia, and various European nations.

Sources:

http://www.army-technology.com/contractors/machine_guns/corner_shot/index.html

http://www.cornershot.com/index.php

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Traveling Cellularly

With my abroad plans growing ever closer, I took some time during spring break to investigate cellphones and the best way to use them internationally. I was surprised at the amount of choices available - and at some of the practices of the cellphone companies which milk dollars from the customer.

To understand your options internationally, you first have to understand a few basics about cellphones. Here in the States, the largest network is Verizon Wireless, which runs on a wireless protocol called CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). Nextel runs a proprietary protocol called iDen (though they are in the process of merging with Sprint, who also uses CDMA, while T-Mobile and the newly merged Cingular/AT&T Wireless use a protocol called GSM (Global System for Mobile communication). GSM is the modern replacement for an older protocol, TDMA. CDMA is a lot like the US system of measurement - it works great here, but everyone else uses the metric system (GSM).

While GSM coverage used to be terrible in the United States, it is quickly gaining ground against CDMA. The advantage of a GSM phone is that it uses technology known as a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) to hold your information for the network. The nice thing about these cards is that they are removable, so you can use your phone on pretty much any network by simply replacing your SIM card (though there is a catch). The U.S. carriers offer international service, but it is extremely expensive (usually a dollar a minute and up when calling from overseas) - so what you can do is buy a SIM card when you get to your destination. The domestic carriers abroad will give you much cheaper rates, and you can even buy special "phone card" SIMs that are basically like prepaid minute accounts that cost more like 7 cents a minute when calling home. Swapping these cards in and out is usually VERY easy - they are usually located right underneath the battery. Upon your return to the U.S. you can simply pop your old SIM card back in and pick up using your old cellphone plan right where you left off.

Now I mentioned there was a catch. In order to prevent you from switching carriers, most U.S. cellphone companies lock their handsets so the technically illiterate would have to buy a new phone in order to switch, and hopefully be discouraged by the costliness and just stick with the carrier. However, the wonderful staff at It's Geek to Me has discovered a way around this. Cellphones are programmed with a manufacturer's unlock code that allows the phone to be unlocked and therefore accept SIM cards from a variety of GSM carriers. These codes are readily available online, or there are services that will unlock your phone for a small fee. I believe that T-Mobile will also unlock your phone for you upon request, though I'm not 100% sure about this. You may also want to check with your carrier anyway before unlocking, as unlocking may void the warranty on your phone (though this might not be a big deal).

If you are locked into a contract with Verizon, all is not lost. They do offer an international phone that runs both CDMA and GSM and accepts SIM cards, though reviews on it are mixed and its features are limited. A great resource when researching carriers and phones is the website www.phonescoop.com.

In short, a GSM phone is the way to go for traveling flexibility - just make sure you get it unlocked before you leave! Since handsets overseas are all sold unlocked, SIM cards are sold just as frequently as phone cards - and any cellphone store there can help you get ready to go. Just make sure you find a card that gives you a good rate to call home AND domestically in-country if that's what you need.

Get your GAIM on

It has come to my attention, through a recent slashdot posting, that America Online has officially posted revisions to its Terms of Service (ToS). So what, right? Wrong. The following is an actual paragraph from the new ToS (under the "Content You Post" heading):

Although you or the owner of the Content retain ownership of all right, title and interest in Content that you post to any AIM Product, AOL owns all right, title and interest in any compilation, collective work or other derivative work created by AOL using or incorporating this Content. In addition, by posting Content on an AIM Product, you grant AOL, its parent, affiliates, subsidiaries, assigns, agents and licensees the irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide right to reproduce, display, perform, distribute, adapt and promote this Content in any medium. You waive any right to privacy. You waive any right to inspect or approve uses of the Content or to be compensated for any such uses.

Wow. That's more than slightly scary. Of particular interest is the sentence You waive any right to privacy. As the internet already tends to make privacy a rarity, AOL's jumping on the bandwagon doesn't help things. What does this mean for the casual AIM user?

1. I wouldn't say anything that could be construed as conspiracy to commit terrorism or anything about recent illegal activities.
2. Be careful as to which files you send- you're being tracked now. That means no potentially illegal content: MP3s, Movies, etc.
3. It's time to find an alternative.

It's true, AIM has been there from the beginning. It was the tool for instant messaging, but has since fallen from its coveted position as king of the messenger programs. This is not an advertisement for ICQ, or god forbid, MSN. There are tons of messaging clients out there that mooch off of the AIM server. It's great, and there's not too much AOL can really do to stop it (they've tried). [Note: Installing DeadAIM over your current installation of AIM doesn't count]

One alternative, and possibly one's best choice is GAIM. Why is GAIM so great? Besides being free and open source, it has support for
AIM, ICQ, Yahoo!, MSN, Jabber, IRC, Napster, Gadu-Gadu and Zephyr. In addition to this, there exists a nice, easy to use GAIM Encryption Plugin.

Gaim has many nifty features, including (but not limited to) buddy aliasing, user condensing, logging, tabbed IM windows, and plugin functionality. Buddy aliasing is the ability to replace someone's screen name with a name you come up with, or 'alias'. Example: You might want to add my screen name, neo5064, but alias it to "Brad" to remember who I am. From that moment onwards, my screen name will appear as "Brad" instead of neo5064. Nifty, huh? User condensing is GAIM's ability to condense all of a single person's screen names into one buddy. It supports message logging, which can be turned off if desired. Don't like millions of IMs open? GAIM has the answer: Tabbed windows! (The parallels between upgrading (yes, upgrading) from AIM to GAIM and upgrading from IE to Firefox are striking.) The greatest advantage to using GAIM is its plugin functionality, allowing for nearly unlimited add-ons (with simple installation).

Transitioning from any messaging client to GAIM is very simple and straightfoward. Many tutorials on the subject can be found through simple Google searches. As far as portability goes, GAIM runs on practically anything with a CPU, barring Apple computers (I recommend Adium for you guys).

Get GAIM now! (and don't forget encryption)

Friday, March 11, 2005

Google Adds a Few More Zeros

If you read the Tech Journal in The Heights a few weeks ago, you heard about how Google.com is revolutionizing the way data is accessed online. Its effects are so far reaching that the term "google" is becoming a word in common usage (originally from googol, meaning 10^100, hence the witty title). However, their innovation is not limited to the world wide web; a slate of new Google products is changing the way we access all sorts of information: from pictures to email to IM conversations.

GMail, Google's mail service, is a clever new way to do email. Each user is given one gigabyte of storage space, which means that one really doesn't need to delete email. Combined with Google's search tools, you can build your own archive of information, recalling old conversations by keyword at will. GMail is still in beta testing, so you need to be invited by a current user in order to open an account. Fortunately, this website allows users to donate their extra invites so people who don't have an account (like you) can get an invite from a stranger.

Picasa is Google's streamlined approach to managing a digital photo album. Referred to by man web gurus as "iPhoto for the PC", Picasa combines simplicity and innovation to organize and store your digital pictures for easy manipulation, sorting, and sharing. The program scans your hard drive for all photos, then lets you input captions, descriptions, dates, etc. while also sorting the photos into albums. This data can also be imported from filenames and/or existing directories. The developers of Hello have teamed up with the Picasa team to create a messaging client that allows you to share your photos with your friends and family - and gives you the ability to chat about it. It also has an easy upload feature to allow you to share your photos on a blog or website. Though I initially had some problems with this, an upgrade to my Mozilla Firefox web browser corrected it - and the streamlined integration from Picasa -> Hello -> Blogger makes everything about digital pictures incredibly convienient.

Google Desktop Search is a new search tool from Google that searches one's own hard drive. After initial installation, it takes a few hours (do it overnight) to index your entire hard disk. It looks at all your files (from pictures to word documents to previously visited webpages to IM conversations) and indexes them for quick searching. It logs your IM conversations, emails, and web history (though these features can be turned off for privacy reasons) and stores them for later access. At a later date, you can search for keywords from a previous conversation or email without knowing the date or anything about it and it will generate results from your own computer in true Google fashion.

Various versions of these programs exist, from browser plugins to toolbars, so you can choose the format which works best for you. The three of them are extremely useful, especially when used in conjunction with each other or other applications. The ease with which Google products access data make technology more and more valuable and make human-computer interaction more and more painless. Isn't that the point after all?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Taking Advantage of Technology

Staying with the trend of revealing interesting technology websites, it seems worthwhile to introduce I-Hacked.com. This site is more than a rehash of Hack A Day, as it provides slightly different content in a more organized manner. The authors stress that they are not "crackers" (an alternative to hacking regarding the 'cracking' of passwords/programs), and that they are not malicious hackers. Like Hack A Day, they are a community fueled website, with most of their content coming from their readership.

The hacks are divided into the several categories and sub-categories. The major sections include: Computer Components, Consumer Electronics, Electronic Projects, Game Systems, Cell / Phone, Car / Home, and Misc. Regardless of one’s interest, there is more than likely a hack to fit it. While the legality of some of the hacks they publish is questionable, they make interesting reading at the very least. At the time of this article, the latest story was a guide to hacking iTunes, and the removal of the Digital-Rights-Management information contained within the files.

I-Hacked includes many useful software based hacks, a popular addition being a guide to upgrading one’s 4x DVD Burner to an 8x Dual Layer DVD Burner. In addition to these nifty tricks, they delve into the realm of web myths and potential scams. Specifically, the “refer X amount of friends and complete Y offers for a free Z” brand of sketchy websites. According to I-hacked, these sites do pay off, with not only the process used, but the methodology behind the sponsoring company.

Overall, I-Hacked is a very interesting site, offering a little more organization than Hack A Day. Definitely a welcome addition to my growing library of home pages.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Product Review: Altec Lansing InMotion

As the MP3 player market seems to be growing quite rapidly, it seems worthwhile to take a break from the website descriptions to offer a product review. It's easy enough to find an MP3 player review online, but the fact that you're reading this review more or less implies that you have one already (or someone you know has one).

Listening to your MP3 player tends to be a very solitary activity, and is a great way to be anti-social (especially on the Newton Bus). If you're content listening to your music alone, or rarely leave your place of residence, this product won't really appeal to you. The product I write of is Altec Lansing's InMotion portable speaker system.

Just by looking at it, one would never know that Apple didn't design it, as it sports the trademark Apple minimalist style. The device weighs in at an impressive 15 ounces, and is equally small in size. When folded, the system is 8 inches wide, 5.4 inches deep, and 1.2 inches tall. Two volume buttons, labelled "+" and "-" occupy the left of the device's surface, with a simple on/off switch opposite them.

It seems that the device was designed with the iPod in mind, as it has an iPod dock in the front, separating the two columns of speakers. An adapter offering compatability with iPod Minis is included for the dock. On the rear of the device are three jacks and an iPod connection slot. The three jacks are for a power supply, headphone support, and auxiliary input. The connection slot resembles the one on the bottom of the iPod, and allows the user to update the iPod through the proper connection cable.

The quality of the speakers is amazing, as they produce a very loud, crisp tone. I have yet to max out the volume of the speakers myself, as they are capable of making quite a bit of noise. This is even more impressive considering they are powered by 4 AA batteries, and maintain battery life for nearly 24 hours of straight play-time.

The device sports an MSRP of $150, but is worth every penny if you're in the market for a quality portable speaker solution.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Hardware Hacks, How-tos, and Pez

Everyone loves gadgets. It's a fact. The more functionality they have, the better. Have you ever found an awesome tech-toy and thought, “Hey, this is pretty cool, but if it could do X, that would be amazing.” Yeah, me too. Fortunately we have Hack A Day, conveniently located at www.hackaday.com. This site features a rich collection of hardware and software hacks, nearly all of them incredibly cool. From instructions detailing how to make an MP3 player out of an Altoids can to hacking Coca-Cola vending machines, Hack A Day is interesting stuff.

As the name implies, a new hack is posted daily, most often submitted by the site’s readership. Since they started on September 5th, 2004, Hack A Day has been the easiest and most reliable source for interesting modification ideas, pertaining to devices that you most likely already own. If nothing else, you’ll see something cool that you haven't seen before. My personal favorite thus far is the USB Pez Dispenser.