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December 31, 2004

Hat Rai Lay Beach

From Agence France Presse, via the Sydney Morning Herald, a stunning and almost certainly tragic series of photos from Hat Rai Lay Beach in Thailand. Captions are from the SMH. Click on any photo for the full-size version:

Hat Rai Lay Beach 1

Tourists run for their lives as the first of six tsunamis starts to roll towards Hat Rai Lay Beach, near Krabi in southern Thailand. One woman runs towards the waves.

Hat Rai Lay Beach 2

The woman continues to run as the wave advances.

Hat Rai Lay Beach 3

With the waves engulfing boats, the woman makes contact with her group. It is not known if they survived.

If I had to guess, I'd say that's a mother running to her children. In the last photo, they couldn't have been more than a few seconds from being engulfed... and it's impossible to imagine how any of them could have survived.

I can't comprehend the tragedy of 120,000 deaths. But I can comprehend the tragedy of the likely death of one family. And I can be awed by the sacrifice of a mother running to her children.

For more tsunami photos, check out the tsunami tag on Flickr.

December 29, 2004

Donating to Tsunami Relief

If you already have account information with Amazon.com, you can donate money to Red Cross tsunami relief efforts from the Amazon.com home page in less than a minute.

The Tabloids and Virgin Galactic

Following up on my previous entry, of course the press won't end when Virgin Galactic makes its first successful flight. As the rich and famous take their turns rocketing to 100 kilometers, you can bet the tabloids and their kin will be all over them:

  • People: The World's Sexiest Man Heads into Orbit
  • Us: Will Brad Pitt Wear His Wedding Ring in Space?
  • Enquirer: Brad Has Zero-G Affair; Jen Devastated
  • Weekly World News: Batboy Saves Brad Pitt After Rocket Disaster

Virgin Marketing

In this month's Wired cover story on -- and no, I will not call him "rebel billionaire" -- Sir Richard Branson's new Virgin Galactic (AKA Sub-Orbital Tourism for the Wealthy and the Comfortably Well-Off) is a great explanation of why, in the end, Virgin wants to send people into space:

Will Whitehorn is barking orders into a cell phone. Standing in the lobby of a sleek London hotel, he wears a black leather jacket and carries a flame-red helmet. What he calls "my office scooter," a hulking 650-cc Honda Deauville, is parked outside. At 44, the former North Sea oil-rig helicopter crewman is Virgin's group director of brand development, which usually translates as Branson's right hand...

It was Whitehorn who registered the idea of a Virgin space-travel company back in 1995. Four years later, amid talks with a now-defunct Mojave outfit called Rotary Rockets, he and Branson took the next step, trademarking the name Virgin Galactic...

Among Whitehorn's other contributions is a neat bit of business jargon, "branded venture capital." The phrase describes what Virgin does: fund and launch companies that can benefit from the group's accumulated experience and shrewd application of the Virgin logo. From an 80-person West London headquarters only a short stroll from Branson's town house, Virgin Management controls nearly 200 companies organized in a dozen major groups, with a total of 50,000 employees. Branson and a small group of other shareholders fund new businesses from a $600 million war chest fed by profits, sales of mature assets, and IPOs. Three Virgin companies are on stock exchanges in the UK, Belgium, and Australia, a number Whitehorn says could triple over the next several years, starting with Virgin Mobile's US offshoot in fall 2005. "We're like a little investment bank with a marketing department," he explains.

Virgin Galactic has the potential to be more than just the latest addition to the portfolio. "We've been looking for a flagship company for the 21st century," Whitehorn says, "especially for the US." The trans-Atlantic reference is no minor detail. Virgin Mobile found a sweet spot selling pay-as-you-go cell phones to young Americans who don't want long-term contracts. Still, overall, the US accounts for only 10 percent of Virgin Group's global revenue. So next in line is a low-cost, high-frills airline, Virgin America (Whitehorn calls it "JetBlue with business class"). Even much-maligned Virgin Cola will be getting a new US push.

"Galactic will put the Virgin brand on the American map in a way money can't buy," Whitehorn says. "It will cost us $100 million to take people to space. Vodafone is spending $100 million putting decals on Formula One racing cars. Every time someone mentions space travel, they'll mention Virgin."

I love this. It's brilliant. Whitehorn hits it dead-on. Look at how much press Virgin is getting for this already, and they haven't even finished designing their spacecraft.

This will go down as one of the cleverest uses of a $100 million marketing budget ever.

December 27, 2004

No, So Many Didn't Have to Die

In my previous entry, I wondered if many of the deaths from yesterday's tsunami could have been prevented. It turns out that they could have. From a Reuters story via News.com:

U.S. officials who detected a massive earthquake off Asia's coast on Saturday tried frantically to warn the deadly wall of water was coming, the head of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said Sunday.

But there was no official alert system in the region because such catastrophes only happen there about once every 700 years, said Charles McCreery, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's center in Honolulu.

"We tried to do what we could," McCreery said. "We don't have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world."

Within moments of detecting the quake, McCreery and his staff were on the phone to Australia, then to U.S. Naval officials, various U.S. embassies and finally the U.S. State Department.

They were unable to reach the thousands in the countries most severely affected -- including India, Thailand and Sri Lanka -- because none had a tsunami warning mechanism or tidal gauges to alert people, he said...

A warning center such as those used around the Pacific could have saved thousands of lives, Waverly Person of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Earthquake Information Center, told Reuters.

"Most of those people could have been saved if they had had a tsunami warning system in place or tide gauges," he said.

"And I think this will be a lesson to them," he said, referring to the governments of the devastated countries...

Tsunami warning systems and tide gauges exist around the Pacific Ocean, for the Pacific Rim as well as South America. The United States has such warning centers in Hawaii and Alaska operated by the U.S. Geological Survey and NOAA. But none of these monitors the Indian Ocean region, McCreery said...

U.S. officials are now trying to help officials in the region set up some sort of informal warning system and feeling badly that more couldn't have been done, McCreery said.

"It took an hour and a half for the wave to get from the earthquake to Sri Lanka and an hour for it to get... to the west coast of Thailand and Malaysia," he said. "You can walk inland for 15 minutes to get to a safe area."

December 26, 2004

Did So Many Have to Die?

I've been reading about the devastating tsunami that hit countries along the Indian Ocean earlier today. At least "4,440 died in Indonesia, 4,500 in Sri Lanka and 3,200 in India," according to this BBC report.

There's one thing that I don't understand. According to the BBC, "tsunamis generated by earthquakes can travel at up to 500km/h." According to the US Geological Survey, the earthquake was centered at 3.298°N, 95.779°E. From that location, it's more than 1,500 kilometers to Sri Lanka, and more than 1,900 kilometers to India. In other words, the tsunami couldn't have hit Sri Lanka earlier than 3 hours after the earthquake. India was hit no earlier than 3 hours, 48 minutes after the quake.

Isn't three hours enough time to provide warnings to coastal areas? I asked a good friend of mine from Australia about this. She has traveled extensively in that part of the world, and her answer was, basically, there's very little infrastructure there for collecting and disseminating news like that. I thought about that more afterwards. I can see how a country like Indonesia might be so overwhelmed by the tsunami itself that they wouldn't be able to get word out to people. But shouldn't every seismological monitoring station in the world have taken immediate notice of the largest earthquake in 40 years? Shouldn't they have noticed that it took place beneath the ocean? Shouldn't they have forecast the possibility of a sizable tsunami and issued warnings to all coastal nations in the region?

Until someone explains to me why I'm wrong, I can't help but think that any deaths in India and Sri Lanka were senseless and avoidable.

December 25, 2004

Another Scene from a Movie

My new gym was closed yesterday and again today. So the night before Christmas Eve, I was determined to get in one last swim before taking a couple of days off. I was held up in the circle of Hell popularly known as Crossroads Plaza, and so didn't make it to the gym until 40 minutes before closing time. Two employees and I were the only people there.

Me: Are the lights in the pool room on? It looked dark from the outside.

Employee: Oh, you want to swim? I just switched the lights off. I'll go turn them on now.

I changed and walked into the pool room, where the employee was waiting. It was dark except for the lights in the pool itself. The employee pointed to the overhead lights and said they'd take a few minutes to turn on. I thanked him and jumped in for my swim.

The pool room is separated from the main gym by a series of windows. I had been swimming a couple of minutes when the employees shut down the lights in the rest of the gym, which made it really dark except for the in-pool lights. I had swum before in pools in the dark, but always outdoors with lights from buildings around. There was really no external light at all.

As I swam, I thought to myself, isn't there some slasher movie rule about swimming alone in pools at night? There has to be at least one movie where someone gets killed that way and then the audience tut-tuts them for their slasher-attracting act of obvious stupidity.

And then the lights came on.

Annual Christmas Dialogue

This was in my blog entry last Christmas, and so it is again today. At this rate, it may become a tradition:

At Lucy's "PSYCHIATRIC HELP" booth:

Charlie Brown: [M]y trouble is Christmas. I just don't understand it. Instead of feeling happy, I feel sort of let down.
Lucy: You need involvement. You need to get involved in some real Christmas project. How would you like to be the director of our Christmas play?
Charlie Brown: Me? You want me to be the director of a Christmas play?
Lucy: Sure, Charlie Brown. We need a director. You need involvement. We've got a shepherd, musicians, animals, everyone you need. We've even got a Christmas queen.
Charlie Brown: I don't know anything about directing a Christmas play.
Lucy: Don't worry; I'll be there to help you. I'll meet you at the auditorium. Incidentally, I know how you feel about all this Christmas business, getting depressed and all that. It happens to me every year. I never get what I really want. I always get a lot of stupid toys, or a bicycle, or clothes, or something like that.
Charlie Brown: What is you want?
Lucy: Real estate.

Later, on the way to the auditorium:

Sally: I've been looking for you, big brother. Will you please write a letter to Santa Claus for me?
Charlie Brown: Well, I don't have much time. I'm supposed to get down to the school auditorium and direct a Christmas play.
Sally: You write it and I'll tell you what I want to say.
Charlie Brown: Okay, shoot.
Sally: Dear Santa Claus: How have you been? Did you have a nice summer? How is your wife? I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents that I want.
Charlie Brown: Oh, brother!
Sally: Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: just send money. How about tens and twenties?
Charlie Brown: Tens and twenties? Oh, even my baby sister!
Sally: All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.

Later, at the auditorium:

Charlie Brown: That does it! Now look, if we're ever to get this play off the ground, we've gotta have some cooperation.
Lucy: What's the matter, Charlie Brown? Don't you think it's great?
Charlie Brown: It's all wrong!
Lucy: Look, Charlie, let's face it: we all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big Eastern syndicate, you know.

I know in my heart that Christmas is becoming more commercialized, more frantic, more... greedy. In 1965, at least most people gave actual presents. Now the trend is to give gift cards, which seem terribly impersonal to me.

The worst part is that I was a direct participant in the trend this year. With just a couple of exceptions, I put off my holiday shopping until two days before Christmas. All it took was half an hour of motionless parking lot traffic jams and the press of humanity in the stores to be beaten into an "okay, I'll just get everyone gift cards" sort of resignation. Next Christmas, not a single gift card -- that's my resolution.

December 23, 2004

"Isn't This a Scene out of a Movie?"

Yesterday was a momentous day for the company I co-founded, 3Dsolve. For a variety of reasons, we've made the decision not to publicize the details of the event, but it was a huge step forward for us -- validation of what we've achieved so far and the means to accelerate our growth in the future. I can't imagine us being more pleased right now.

We were trying to wrap everything up at the end of the day and I needed a signature from Joi Ito, who is an investor and advisor of ours. I left him an e-mail saying, "Call me the moment you get this," then, knowing it was still before sunrise in Tokyo, went to put in a kilometer swim at my new gym. I got out of the pool, showered, and walked back to my locker to find a missed phone call from Joi. I called him back right then. The signature wasn't a problem -- he just needed to know where to send it. I looked around, realized there was no one else in the locker room, and went through the deal points with him. As I stood there in my towel, talking pres and posts and ratchets and dollars, I thought to myself, "Isn't this a scene out of a movie?" If it isn't, it should be.

Anyway, congratulations to the entire 3Dsolve team on their acheivement, and thanks to all our friends as well -- including Joi for a bit of last-minute help.

Industry Catches Up, Sort Of

In March 2003, I blogged:

How about a branding program for non-detector triggering clothing and accessories? Some sort of clothing industry council could work on it with the Department of Homeland Security. "FlyReady," maybe, or "WalkOn." There would be a logo associated with it. Clothing and accessories bearing the logo would be certified to have been tested using DHS metal detection equipment and found not to set it off. Shoes could use highly durable plastics as reinforcement.
From Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends a few days ago:
I'm almost certain that some of you experimented some problems at security counters before boarding a plane. You were asked to remove your shoes or your belt -- while your laptop was left unattended on the other side of the counter. How frustrating! But I have some good news for you. In "Functional Fashion Helps Some Through Airport Checkpoints," the Washington Post (free registration) reports these incidents are now so frequent that retailers are offering new products -- such as bras and shoes -- labeled as 'airport friendly.' In fact, a Google search on the 'airport friendly' subject returns more than 22,000 results! Read more on this 'fashion trend'...

Here is a general introduction from the Washington Post.

In this era of tightened airport security, retailers are coming to the aid of the aggravated traveler, offering new products -- such as bras and shoes -- designed to get passengers through the checkpoints without the indignity of a pat-down.

Shoemakers Johnston & Murphy, Florsheim and Rockport sell dozens of styles without metal shanks in the soles and market them to frequent fliers. Florsheim identifies the styles with tags that look like passports labeled "airport friendly" inside the shoebox.

A good start. Now, set up an industry-wide certification, get DHS buy-in, brand it, and you're all set. See? That wasn't so hard.

December 22, 2004

Jealousy Is So Unbecoming

From a New York Times story, "And Now for Something Slightly Different", on competitors to the iPod:

[Rio vice president for product marketing Dan] Torres said he was acutely aware of iPod's rounded rectangular styling and its display screen above a circular control dial, because that is how Rio's original player looked three years before the first iPod arrived.

"It's in Rio's genes to continue to push design," Mr. Torres said. "All of these things don't have to be boxes or look like bars of soap." Consumers will be drawn to designs and features that have their own appeal, he added, looks and functions that do not simply mimic the iPod's.

A hundred years from now, the iPod will be on display as an iconic example of early 21st century design, but to Rio, it's a bar of soap. And how is Rio's design strategy working for it?

It is hardly a secret that Apple's smart, sleek music players rule the market. Industry analysts estimate that more than 9 of every 10 high-capacity players sold in the United States are iPods.
Now, to be fair to Rio, if I were in Torres' shoes, I'd probably be saying something similar. But still... in press interviews, one wants to avoid appearing... how shall I say it? Ungracious?

December 21, 2004

"We Are Totally Running on Fumes"

From an interview (audio only available here) by NPR's Alex Chadwick of Howard Davidowitz, chairman of the retail-consulting and investment-banking firm Davidowitz and Associates, heard on Day to Day this past Monday. Pretty sobering stuff:

Howard Davidowitz: [Consumers] are sitting there with the biggest debt they've ever had in history and the lowest savings they've ever had in history, and I think consumers are pretty worried about that debt. So I don't look for a terrific holiday season.

Chadwick: What is it, credit card debt that people are worried about?

Davidowitz: Personally, as a country, we have the biggest government debt we've ever had, the biggest deficits we've ever had, we're giving away our wealth to foreigners, the American consumer has the highest debt he or she has ever had, and the savings are now under one percent. Let me give you an example: someone who has $30,000 worth of debt on their total credit cards, they're paying $5,000 a year in interest. And the credit card companies are continuing to bombard people with more cards. See, that's what's driving the economy: we're running on air. 75 percent of this economy is consumer-driven, and consumers keep borrowing more and that keeps us going. The problem is, it's not sustainable. And now consumers are starting to think about that debt load...

[The] bottom line is that American consumer is feeling the heat of a non-sustainable economy built on a growing mountain of debt.

Chadwick: All right, you study retail sales, you're also an investment banker. So, long-term, what do you think? I mean, six months, a year, what is going on with the economy and how are we going to get back to better times?

Davidowitz: Things are going to get worse, see, that's our forecast. When you have a free lunch like we've had, you have to buy dinner. Foreigners all over the world, who -- by the way, we are sustained by foreigners, you understand -- this economy only is operational because of the Japanese and Chinese buying our bonds, you understand that?

Chadwick: Yes.

Davidowitz: We are totally running on fumes. So we have mortgaged our future and our economy. We are totally dependent on foreigners buying our bonds. Now when the foreigners see how far in the tank we are -- and by the way, they're looking at it, and talking to me about it -- they are going to demand higher interest rates for buying our bonds and they're going to diversify more into European bonds. That's going to make it more difficult here in America. And President Bush says everything is great, well, wonderful, I just don't see it that way.

Pop vs. Soda vs. Coke

Via Instapundit, a very cool county-by-county map of the terminology people use to refer to soft drinks:

2004-12-21-01.jpg

Blues are "pop", reds are "coke", and yellows are "soda" (with the darker tints signifying higher percentages). The full-size version can be found here.

What I found interesting was the distribution of results in my part of the country (North Carolina) and the surrounding states (Virginia and the northern part of South Carolina):

2004-12-21-02.jpg

The rest of the country tends to be fairly uniform, but for some reason, in the Carolinas and Virginia, name preferences are (literally) all over the map. What's up with that?

December 18, 2004

Interview from Online Educa

After my talk at Online Educa a couple of weeks ago, I did a brief interview with Dhal Anglada of LearningTimes.org. The interview can be found here (scroll down to Entry 2).

December 14, 2004

Necrotheism, or, I Just Don't Get NASCAR

I noticed this little gem at my local Wal-Mart the other day (I'm sorry, I prefer Target, but the Wal-Mart is much closer):

2004-12-14-01-sm.jpg

Here's the description:

OFFICIALLY LICENSED NASCAR SUPERSTAR DALE EARNHARDT SR. R/C RACEKART

Big full-function 1/6 scale R/C kart with removable 12" Dale Sr. Driver that poses in and out of the kart

Not to quibble, but isn't Dale Earnhardt dead? Didn't he die while racing?

Clearly I'm missing the NASCAR gene, because I just don't get this. By "I don't get this," I don't mean, "I don't like NASCAR and so this doesn't appeal to me." I mean, "I don't understand why anyone would like this." It's verging on necrotheism.

Speaking of worshipping the dead, a friend of mine and his wife went to a Halloween party here in North Carolina as rural Southerners. They told partygoers that they had accepted Dale Earnhardt as their personal saviour. That's not too far from the truth around these parts.

December 13, 2004

"This Is Our Country and We're Going to Take It Back"

The closing paragraphs of a story in today's New York Times, "Christian Conservatives Turn to Statehouses", on how conservatives are pressing their agenda (anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, pro-creationism) at the state level:

State Representative Cynthia Davis of Missouri prefiled two bills for the next session of the Legislature that she said "reflect what people want." One would remove the state's requirement that all forms of contraception and their potential health effects be taught in schools, leaving the focus on abstinence. Another would require publishers that sell biology textbooks to Missouri to include at least one chapter with alternative theories to evolution.

"These are common-sense, grass-roots ideas from the people I represent, and I'd be very surprised if a majority of legislators didn't feel they were the right solutions to these problems," Ms. Davis said.

"It's like when the hijackers took over those four planes on Sept. 11 and took people to a place where they didn't want to go," she added. "I think a lot of people feel that liberals have taken our country somewhere we don't want to go. I think a lot more people realize this is our country and we're going to take it back."

I suppose she could have been slightly clearer by actually coming out and saying, "liberals are terrorists," but still...

Anyway, Representative Davis, this isn't just your country, or that of your supporters. It belongs to all Americans. And this American most certainly does not want to go where you're taking his country.

December 12, 2004

Creative Commons for Papers

The presentation and paper linked to in my previous entry are currently copyright by my company, 3Dsolve. I'm going to see if I can't institute a corporate policy of using Creative Commons licenses for public papers. If so, I'll revise the files and repost them.

Online Educa 2004

The week before last, I traveled to Berlin to speak at Online Educa, "the world's largest international e-learning conference and accompanying exhibition and also Europe's largest gathering of e-learning and distance education professionals." According to the Website, 1,703 people registered for the conference -- my on-site estimate had been 1,500-2,000, so that sounds just about right.

Unfortunately, my time at Online Educa was limited to the day of my talk, as I had a meeting in Magdeburg the following day. But from what I saw, it was an excellent conference.

Nancy DeViney, General Manager of IBM Learning Solutions, gave one of the keynote speeches, and I was struck by just how much IBM is focused on the e-learning space and how coherent their vision of the future is. Her talk was on the future of learning, and her key points were:

  1. Learners will be empowered to create their own learning experiences
  2. Collaborative learning environments foster breakthrough thinking
  3. Learning embedded in real-time workflow complements formal and work-enabled learning
  4. Learning enhances relationships across the enterprise and its value chain
To a large extent, her points agree with the trends I'm seeing in military training, the near future of which is most definitely collaborative and embedded.

As for me, my talk was titled, "From Videos to Simulations: New Technologies in Training." I've posted the paper I presented (PDF, 149 KB) and the presentation I gave (PDF, 2.75 MB). I talked about a project that's in progress, in which we're converting existing video-based training in port security to simulation-based training for the US Navy Submarine Learning Center.

The short form of the presentation is that for schedule and budget reasons, we opted for a third-person role playing game style interface rather than a first-person shooter style interface. What we've discovered so far is the following (from my paper):

  • Game-engine derived training tools seem to provide a better sense of place than do their video-based equivalents. Given the obvious inherent quality of video footage, this seems counterintuitive until one realizes that the camera within video footage is fixed, whereas in a simulation-based training tool, if designed properly, students can have much more freedom to move and look within a space. This seems to dramatically increase their knowledge of the space even before entering it in the real world.
  • Game-engine derived training tools are far more extensible than their video-based equivalents. Much of the investment in creating a simulation-based training tool -- environmental artwork, character artwork, dialogue recording, animation sequencing, and so on -- can be effectively reused, whether to update existing products (based on changing training requirements) or to create new extensions to existing products (based on expanding training requirements).
  • Flexibility in development can be a double-edged sword. In the production of video-based training tools, the conclusion of filming is seen as a 'hard stop' by customers -- the point after which the content cannot be changed without significant expense. In simulation-based training tools, a comparable milestone (in terms of the customer's perception) does not exist, and so this increases the requirement for the developer to finalize source content as quickly as possible and explain to the customer the implications of changes to this content.
I'm going to be presenting two papers at TESI 2005 (Training, Education, & Simulation International) in Maastricht, Netherlands this March: "Open Source Software and Simulation Learning" and "Game Technology in Security Training." More on those papers soon.

December 08, 2004

Things to Blog About

Things I should blog about, yet haven't because I've been so busy, but will, unless the mere act of listing them gives me a feeling close enough to actually having written about them that I no longer feel the need to do so:

  • My favorite recipe from Thanksgiving vacation
  • My talk at Online Educa in Berlin
  • Other talks at Online Educa
  • Berlin at Christmas
  • Haus am Checkpoint Charlie
  • What "SWISSAIR" really stands for
  • My impressions of I/ITSEC
  • My two upcoming talks at TESI in Maastricht next March
  • How well Flickr is doing
I'll start getting to this soon... I promise. I mean it this time.

December 01, 2004

"If You See It at Dinner..."

My teenager daughter Kelsey spent Thanksgiving at the house of a friend's grandmother, in a small town a few hours away. When I saw her after her return, I asked her how her trip went. It was okay, except for the meals. Apparently her friend's grandmother has a rule: "If you see it at dinner, you're going to see it until it's gone." Accordingly, the main courses of her meals Thursday and Friday were:

Thursday (Thanksgiving) dinner: Sliced turkey
Friday breakfast: Sliced turkey
Friday lunch: Turkey sandwiches
Friday dinner: Turkey sandwiches

I like turkey, but I had to admit, this sounded a bit rough. "But that wasn't the worst part," Kelsey said. The worst part was breakfast Saturday morning, which consisted of pancakes with turkey. Is this some freakish Southern custom I've managed to avoid these past few years?