August 2007

Back when I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s, I loved the Usborne series of books about life in the future. Now that I’m living in the future, I’m trying to find these old books and see how many of their predictions of life today came true. The Usborne Guide to Computer and Video Games, which I pointed to in an earlier entry, was rather accurate in its predictions of what was in store for video and computer games. The future home tech featured in Usborne’s Future Cities: Homes and Living into the 21st Century (whose cover appears below) isn’t too far off the mark either; most of it would be easily found at your local Best Buy.

Cover of the book “Future Cities”

One section in Future Cities is titled Computers in the Home. It describes a home of future, as seen through the eyes of a British author dabbling in sci-fi in the late 1970s. Here’s its introduction:

Computers in the Home

The picture on the right takes you into the living room of a house in the future. The basics will probably be similar — windo9ws, furniture, carpet and TV. There will be one big change though — the number of electronic gadgets in use.

The same computer revolution which has resulted in calculators and digital watches could, through the 1980s and ’90s, revolutionise people’s living habits.

Television is changing from a box to stare at into a useful two-way tool. Electronic newspapers are already available — pushing the button on a handset lets you read ‘pages’ of news, weather, puzzles and quizzes.

TV-telephones should be a practical reality by the mid 1980s. Xerox copying over the telephone already exists. Combining the two could result in millions of office workers being able to work at home if they wish. There is little need to work in a central office if a computer can store records, copiers can send information from place to place and people can talk on TV-telephones.

Many people may prefer to carry on working in an office with others, but for those who are happy at home, the savings in travelling time would be useful. Even better would be the money saved on transport costs to and from work.

Pictured below is a scan of the two-page spread in which the Computers in the Home section appears. It points out some features in a future home, most of which you might find in your own living room today.

Preview image of “Computers in the Home”, as pictured in the late 1970s.
Click to see the full picture at full size.
Image courtesy of Miss Fipi Lele.

Here’s the accompanying text, with my commentary in italics:

The Electronic Household

This living room has many electronic gadgets which are either in use already or are being developed for people to buy in the 1980s.

1. Giant-size TV

Based on the designs already available, this one has a super-bright screen for daylight viewing and stereo sound system.

(Came true and even was surpassed in some ways. 42-inch plasma screens sell at Costco for about $1000 and TV isn’t just broadcast in stereo, but 5:1 surround.)

2. Electronic video movie camera

Requires no film, just a spool of tape. Within ten years video cameras like this could be replaced by 3-D holographic recorders.

(The bit about tape came true in the 80s and is surpassed today by recorders that write to magnetic and optical disk as well as solid-state memory. Holograms, a “science news” favourite that seemed to crop up in the news once a month, don’t have the future-appeal they did back then.)

3. Flat screen TV

No longer a bulky box, TV has shrunk to a thickness of less than five centimetres. This one is used to order shopping via a computerised shopping centre a few kilometres away. The system takes orders and indicates if any items are in stock.

(Strange how they separated “giant TV” from “flat screen” TV, as if it were an either-or-but-not-both choice. It’s come true, all right: the LCD monitor with which I’m making this entry is a mere 3 centimetres thick, and the head office of Amazon — this entry links to Future Cities in its catalog — is about 3000 kilometres away.)

4. Video disc player

Used for recording off the TV and for replaying favourite films.

(Came true and surpassed with DVDs, Tivo, movies-on-demand and the merging of disc players and videogames.)

5. Domestic robot rolls in with drinks.

One robot, the Quasar, is already on sale in the USA. Reports indicate that it may be little more than a toy, however, so it will be a few years before “Star Wars” robots tramp through our homes.

(Things didn’t turn out as predicted. The Quasar, pictured below, was much less than a toy. In fact, it turned out to be a hoax:

Two photos of the Quasar robot, purportedly doing housekeeping.

We do have the Roomba, though, and we do live in a world where a robot gladiator contest is a viable TV show.)

6. Mail slot

By 1990, most mail will be sent in electronic form. Posting a letter will consist of placing it in front of a copier at your home or post office. The electronic read-out will be flashed up to a satellite, to be beamed to its destination. Like many other electronic ideas, the savings in time and energy could be enormous.

(Two areas in which retro-future predictions break down are how we’ll communicate with our machines and how we’ll communicate with each other. Most models of electronic mail as perceived around 1980 was always some form of tele-copying, where you’d write or type your original letter, which would then be scanned into electronic form and then printed at the post office closest to the receiving party. Even the U.S. Postal Service envisioned this model, since they saw mail, whether physical or electronic as their rightful domain. Remind me to post and article about this sometime.)


Software Development Maxim of the Day

by Joey deVilla on August 28, 2007

Overheard on the #rubyonrails IRC channel:

[ Following a discussion in which someone talks about how his company is switching from a web-based app to a thick client. ]

<Vardogr> Bad ideas never die, they just get new project names.


Acer and Gateway: When Two Turds Collide

by Joey deVilla on August 27, 2007

Tweedledum and Tweedledee with keyboard and mouse, fightingI was most amused by this comment made in response to the Engadget article about Acer’s announcement that they plan to acquire Gateway:

Wow, when 2 turds collide! This should be an exciting merger.

Having been an owner of two Acer laptops (one back in 1997, the other being the Vista PC sent to me in Microsoft’s PR disaster earlier this year) and the user of a number of Gateway desktops, I have to agree with the general sentiment expressed both in the Engadget comments as well as among my peers: they may be cheap, but their quality is on the low end of the scale, especially when it comes to laptops. They’re the makes I recommend against whenever people ask me what Wintel/Lintel machines they should buy.


“Hipster Trap” comic from “Toothpaste for Dinner”

Last Night in the Hipster Trap

Although Toronto’s Tranzac Club was founded in the 1930s as a place for the preservation of Australian and New Zealand culture, it’s also a Hipster Trap.

The club is located in the neighbourhood known as The Annex, a tree-lined old residential neighbourhood close to the University that’s home to both students and faculty. Bloor Street, Toronto’s main east-west street is its southern border, and as a result, the stores, restaurants and bars tend to cater to the crowd that likes to hang around university neighbourhoods. Hence the high concentration of Hipster Traps.

I was at the Tranzac Club along with my wife, the lovely Ginger Ninja, to see my old college buddy Karl Mohr, who was performing his songs on solo piano as the opening act for the Parkdale Revolutionary Orchestra. Karl’s performance could be described as a goth vaudeville musical act (imagine Peter Murphy dressed as a warrior from Dune, while the Parkdale Revolutionary Orchestra turn pop on its ear by combining orchestral instruments and arrangements with operatic vocals and not-quite-conventional song structures.

I wasn’t just an audience member, either — I was also there to provide accordion backing and a solo for Karl’s final number, a maudlin-yet-catchy tune titled Can Your Remains Be Buried With Mine? For this number, Karl stepped away from the piano and sang while guitarist Ian Revell and I backed him up. He got a volunteer from the audience to participate in some pantomime, “dying” through the song’s four verses.

It was the last place I expected to hear a conversation about Facebook development.

Overhearing an Unlikely Developer

After joining Karl for his last number, there was the usual between-act shuffle as people went to the bar to get more drinks, to go to the bathroom or to chat with their friends. My cold was getting worse, so I figured I wouldn’t be able to stay for the full main act. We took a couple of seats near the door, and as I sipped the last of my beer, I overheard a conversation at the next table.

“Everybody’s on Facebook now. We’re supposed to be one of the biggest Facebook cities on the planet [for a while, we were the city with the most Facbookers, but we’ve since been beaten out by London. We’ve still got them beat on a per-capita basis]. It’s so big that I think I’m going to learn PHP just so I can write a Facebook application.”

I turned to see who was talking. The would-be Facebook developer was a woman in her twenties, in a brown t-shirt and wearing art school glasses, with her hair pulled back into two meatball-shaped ponytails. Probably a fan of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or maybe even Danielson Famile if my busker senses are still working. She said that even though she hadn’t written a program since a computer class in high school, she had an idea for a Facebook app.

I don’t want to give away her idea before she’s even had a chance to try and make it real, but it should be enough to say that it’s cutesy-girly and no guy I know would ever install it (not even the gay ones), but I’m quite sute that she and her friends — the target audience for her app — would love it.

It’s one thing to see the Usual Suspects of Toronto’s tech community, the TorCampers — a large and active community of techies, marketers, entrepreneurs and others who work in high tech — express interest in developing Facebook apps at our usual gatherings as well as special get-togethers like the recent FacebookCamp. It’s something else to see someone outside our field say that she wants to learn some programming so that she can build a Facebook app for her and her friends. I don’t think I’ve seen a platform get a non-developer this excited about programming since HyperCard.

The Facebook API’s 3-Month Anniversary

It’s hard to believe that only three months have passed since the Facebook API was made available to the general public. In that short time:

  • A number of Facebook developer get-togethers, including FacebookCamp Toronto, which was attended by over 400 people, have taken place. Facebook has flown representatives to some of these gatherings, including the Toronto one.
  • Over 3,000 Facebook-approved applications written, with who-knows-how-many more that haven’t yet been submitted for review.
  • The number one Facebook app, Top Friends, has been over 13 million users. Just under 50 apps have netted 1 million installations. The next 100 in rank have a total of over 100,000 users.
  • The avenues connecting money to developers keep coming: there are a number of ad networks looking to place ads in facebook apps and venture capitalists seeking out developers to pair up with cash.

I wonder what we’ll be saying once the six-month anniversary rolls around. Hey, I wonder what I’ll be overhearing from unlikely developers come that time.


Facebook Development: Photos, Part 2

by Joey deVilla on August 24, 2007

Facebook Polaroid Cameras

More Facebook application development goodness at the Tucows Developer Blog: Using the FacebookRestClient Class’ “Photo” Methods, Part 2: photos_get.


Facebook Development: Photos, Part 1

by Joey deVilla on August 23, 2007

Polaroid Camera dispensing “Facebook” photo

Over at the Tucows Developer Blog, I have another article in my series on developing Facebook Applications in PHP using Facebook’s client code. In this article, I start looking at the FacebookRestClient class’ methods for dealing with photos, starting with the photos_getAlbums method.


Boing Boing points to the story of Blinky, the two-headed calf, who was euthanized yesterday.

My co-workers at Tucows and I couldn’t help but notice that Blinky bore a rather uncanny resemblance to our corporate logo:

Blinky the two-headed calf, side-by-side with the Tucows logo