Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sony Rolly with Bluetooth

The rolling egg that fancies itself a robot is back, with an update in the form of the Rolly SEP-50BT. Compared to its predecessor the Rolly SEP-10BT, this new dancing fool has double the memory at 2GB along with Bluetooth.

Which means that it can now be controlled from a cellphone, PC etc. It comes bundled with ‘Rolly Remote’, software that lets you control the movement of your Rolly. In fact you can control up to 7 Rolly’s from the PC. The new Rolly will be available in pink and limited edition black for about $350 on November 21 in Japan.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Tana Toraja

Tana Toraja is a region in Sulawesi Island, Indonesia that looks like a picture postcard of Nature's ideal home. Terraced rice fields carpet the ground, limestone cliffs form the walls, and extraordinary winged, thatched buildings on stilts provide the exotic decor. But the environment is not the only picturesque part of Torajah. Death is also colourful, curious and exquisitely arranged.

Extravagant funeral ceremonies are a social and religious necessity in this Christian-Animist society because families have to impress the gods with the importance of the dead. If not, the soul of the dead person may not be able to enter heaven and will travel the earth instead, causing trouble for the relatives. Families keep the corpse of their kin in their strangely shaped three room houses for two or three years, while they save up for the sumptuous wake.

This fond and funky farewell involves the construction of an entirely new village of bamboo out of town, sometimes with more than a hundred rooms, in which to entertain thousands of guests for up to seven days. A life-size effigy of the dead person is also carved - often topped with the dead one's hair.

Stage One of the event is the transportation of the red and gold covered coffin, and the effigy, from the relatives' home to the funeral village. The coffin and effigy are first put into biers with winged roofs - in the same style as their traditional houses - which then travel to the party on the shoulders of shouting, bouncing, jumping, young men. These and other helpers are fueled by generous quantities of rice, pork, and rice wine drunk from bamboo tubes.

In Stage Two guests arrive at the village to pay their respects to the dead and the living, bringing gifts of live pigs on bamboo poles or water buffalo if they are affluent. Excitement is provided by organised buffalo fights or the escape of pigs and buffalo from captivity, as they run wild through the crowds.

Hundreds of pigs and twenty or more buffalo are killed and eaten during this phase of the celebration.

The buffalo is Toraja's number one status symbol, and some think that the curious shape of the houses mimics buffalo horns, though others believe that it is related to the shape of the ships that brought the original settlers to Indonesia's Sulawesi island. Whatever the reason, the final resting place of the buffalo horns is on front pillars that support local houses.

Apart from eating, drinking, and chatting, guests chant and dance hand-in-hand for hours in a circle around the two biers, a dance that symbolises the human life cycle and at the same time bids farewell to the dead person.

Smoking is popular Indonesia male pastime, and foreign travellers are welcome at this kind of event if they present a carton of cigarettes to the relatives.

Women, on the other hand, chew tobacco, and large amounts of it - so much so that dark brown lumps of tobacco can often be seen protruding grotesquely from their mouths. They are also fond of chewing the narcotic betel nut.

Stage Three is the last day of the funeral when the guests carry the biers for two or three kilometres to the burial site. This will be in a hole cut high in a limestone cliff. Workers climb a bamboo frame, put the coffin into the hole, seal it with stone, then traditionally leave the effigy to guard the body at the entrance to the cave, looking out over the fields of Tana Torajah.

Unfortunately, in the last few years many effigies have been stolen, probably for sale to foreign collectors, so these days the effigies are usually sealed inside the cave with the body.

Nevertheless, there are still many limestone outcrops pocked with holes and dozens of weird, worn faces staring out.

The poor cannot, of course, afford to pay for these kinds of lavish celebrations. They make do with small parties, a minimum of one buffalo , no effigy and coffins left to rot in natural caves. In some favoured spots piles of bones and skulls testify to the many years that this method of burial has been used.

Although the bigger funeral ceremonies are a financial disaster for the families concerned, they play a great part in stabilising and preserving Indonesia's Torajah society.

The wealthier they are, the more spectacular will be their funeral, and the more poor people will be employed and fed for several weeks. The event gives everyone a chance to meet, talk, party and generally blow off steam with guests from all strata of society, in a relaxed atmosphere, while at the same time giving the dead person a rousing send-off and a guaranteed heavenly after-life. Long live Death in Torajah!

So, what do you waiting for? Let's Go visit Indonesia Year 2008 !


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Travel to Indonesia

As the world's largest archipelago (13,677 islands), Indonesia has a huge variety of wonderful landscapes and strange islands, from the terraced rice paddies of Bali to the forests of Sumatra, from bizarre, diverse cultures and traditions of the primitive Dani folk to the weird Torajah buildings and customs.

The people however strangely attired are calm and friendly! The food is wonderful, the wildlife diverse and there is no shortage of activities. Finally, masses of gorgeous, stylish, little ethnic hotels offer chic comfort at the right price.

Where to travel in Indonesia?


bali kuta beachDespite high tourism, Bali maintains a rich and colourful Hindu heritage.Ubud is a relaxed and charming rural town with terrific shabby-chic hotels, beautiful rice terraces, fantastic festivals and excellent arts and crafts. Candi Dasa is one of the best soft beaches nearby, or Kuta for huge expanses of hard sand, frequently rough water, superb restaurants and a wild night life. For more Balinese isolation try travelling 3 hours from Denpasar to northwest coast for black sands, turquoise water, grey rocky outcrops and green paddy fields. There's a lot to do here, including birdwatching in Bali Barat National Park, boating and fishing in Gilimanuk Bay and diving or snorkelling 5 miles offshore at Deer Island.


borobudur templeYogyakarta is an attractive market town, good for local culture and batik, while Pranmbanan, the world's 8th largest Hindu temple complex is certainly worth a day. Then there's Borobudur, one of the finest Buddhist monuments in S.E Asia. Jakarta, on the other hand, we'd prefer to be hanged than spend another night in Java's unpleasant capital city.

Sulawesi [Tana Toraja]

tongkonanFor some really unique and bizarre indigenous customs [especially the funeral ceremonies], boat-shaped housing, lovely rural landscapes and excellent trekking.

Irian Jaya [Balim Valley]

koteka wamenaStrangest of all Indonesia's provinces where the Dani people still retain an ancient culture and men wear penis gourds. Hiking here is often damp and accommodation can be basic [e.g. sleeping on straw next to a mummified body] but you won't forget this place.

Kalimantan [Borneo]

kalimantan borneoBanjarmasin, floating markets and Dayak people or Pangkalanbun as a base for Tanjung Puting National Park walks and boating.

So, what do you guys waiting for? Go pack your self and enjoy the nature of Indonesia!

Visit Indonesia 2009!


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bringing the Olympics to the PC

Stage 8H is best known as the place where Saturday Night Live is filmed. This week, though, it's been turned into an ad-hoc data center as part of NBC's efforts to stream thousands of hours of live Olympic coverage over the Internet.

Instead of the usual crop of comedians, NBC will have dozens of people watching every hour of the games, looking for highlights that it can chop up and make available on-demand. It's just one piece of an elaborate arrangement that shuttles the events in Beijing back to the U.S.

From each of the dozens of Olympic venues, a high-definition video feed is delivered over fiber-optic cables to the International Broadcast Center that has been set up in Beijing. A bunch of encoders and Windows Media servers get the video into an Internet-ready format. From there, it travels via satellite to NBC's headquarters in New York.

There, NBC actually adds a one-minute delay, allowing its cadre of live bloggers in Stamford, Conn., and elsewhere to write their text and have the video and commentary synchronized. Once ready, it goes from NBC to Limelight Networks, a content delivery network, which has 1,000 servers just for the live events sending the content to various Internet service providers, who then shuttle the content directly to their customers. (See chart below)

olympic online schemeLimelight Chief Strategy Officer Mike Gordon said his company is prepared for this to be the biggest live event the Internet has ever seen. "I would not be surprised at all to get 1 million viewers," he said. "We're certainly prepared for whatever the audience turns out to be."
Mike Gordon
That said, there is clearly an element of risk in all this, considering NBC's history of live Olympic streaming has been limited to broadcasting a single game, the gold medal ice hockey match in Torino, Italy, two years ago.

"NBC has always taken risks and is always trying to do more than it has in the past," said Perkins Miller, the NBC senior vice president in charge of the Internet push. "It does keep me up at night when I think about streaming 2,200 hours (of live coverage)."

The massive effort has come together in a remarkably short amount of time. Microsoft's deal to power NBCOlympics.com dates back only to January.

NBC had a pretty good idea what they wanted to do and had built some mock-ups of the player prior to deciding to partner with Microsoft.

Initially, they expected to use Adobe's Flash, given that is the standard for video delivered over the Internet these days. But, as they began to hash things out with Microsoft during a series of all-day meetings at NBC's 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters, Microsoft was able to show NBC some ways it could do more using its homegrown Silverlight technology.

Perkins MillerSilverlight, Microsoft said, would be key to enabling NBC's vision of a "control room" in which a viewer could watch multiple live streams at once.

Even within Microsoft's team, though, there was some apprehension of whether it was doable.

"Can we actually pull this off?" Senior Technical Evangelist Jason Suess recalled thinking. "Is the user's machine going to be able to maintain four connections at one time?"

The key, Suess said in an interview at Microsoft headquarters last week, is using an approach known as adaptive streaming in which the player has the ability to customize the bit rate of the video stream based on a computer's connection and processing power.

By Valentine's Day, they were ready for a test. It was pretty important that the test work out, given that NBC was getting ready to crate up the gear to ship it off to Beijing.

One of the last pieces to fall into place was the advertising. Initially, NBC and Microsoft were hoping to be able to insert full video ads into the live streams, but doing so is tough work.
Jason Suess
As of mid-April, they were still struggling with what to do and began considering that perhaps they would have to just rely on companion advertising around the video stream. Then they came up with an idea. Rather than insert full videos into the live streams, what if they stuck a display ad into the video, particularly during dead times in the action.

That, approach, which is ultimately what's being done, solved several issues. It was less bandwidth-intensive than video ads, but still got the advertiser directly in front of the viewer, all without interrupting any of the coverage. The amount of advertising will vary, Suess said; "It depends what is happening in the sports. We just wait for a dead space."

By early May, NBC made the basic player available on the Internet, using a variety of prerecorded Olympic video, and by early June the enhanced Silverlight player was made public as well. The Olympic Trials, at the end of June, offered the companies and the public a chance for a test drive.

At this point, it's come down to a triage of the few remaining known bugs. Each day, the bar is being raised in terms of what is a big enough deal to warrant such a late change. Suess, meanwhile, sent his wife and kids to visit family in New York so he could work 18-hour days.

In an interview last week, Suess said he had been at work until 1 a.m. the night before and gets in every morning by 8 a.m., so he can chat with the folks in Beijing before they sign off for the night.

Suess said he hopes things will be enough under control that he can actually watch some of the games, particularly sailing, of which he is a big fan. "I sure hope so," he said. "When I got involved in this project, that was one of the reasons."


Friday, January 2, 2009

MIT researchers split water to store solar energy

Nocera and his MIT colleague, Matthew Kanan, on Thursday will publish a technical paper that describes what they claim is a breakthrough in solar energy storage.

The idea is to use the energy from solar photovoltaic panels (or another electricity source) to crack water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gas. Those gases would be stored and used later in a fuel cell to make electricity when the sun is not shining.

The concept is a closed-loop system: running the hydrogen and water through the fuel cell creates water, which can be captured and used again.

The hope is that within 10 years, a cost-effective system that combines clean energy generation with storage can be engineered and available cheaply to people around the world.

"I'm open-sourcing this to let everybody run with it," he said. "My plan is that when people see it, they'll see it's easy to do and they'll start working it."

Artificial photosynthesis
The core scientific discovery was finding a way to break oxygen out of the water with a relatively inexpensive and benign material, Nocera said. The catalyst--made of a cobalt phosphate--can operate in plain water at atmospheric pressure, giving it more potential than existing methods, he said.

Commercially available electrolyzers already split hydrogen atoms from water. A hydrogen filling station, for example, could use an electric-powered electrolyzer to break off hydrogen from water.

A finished system that MIT researchers envision would separate both hydrogen and oxygen. Once stored, both gases would be fed into a fuel cell using a second catalyst like platinum to make electricity.

John Turner, a research fellow in photoelectric chemistry at the National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL), called the work a "significant result."

But he said that a number of improvements still need to be made before realizing the "hydrogen economy." Right now, systems to produce hydrogen and oxygen from water would require huge amounts of land and materials to make catalysts.

"The initial results look promising but it doesn't answer all the things you need in a catalyst," he said. Turner's research focuses on improving ways of harvesting light energy to crack water molecules.

Using the process of photosynthesis as inspiration, Nocera has spent 25 years researching a way to tap the energy in water molecules' bonds.

He envisions a complete break with existing power distribution infrastructure where each home can produce and store enough electricity to be self-sufficient.

Today, when solar panels generate more electricity than a home is using, the excess is simply fed back into the grid, essentially subtracting from the homeowner's utility bill. In an off-grid application, the excess is put into batteries.

But with radically cheaper storage, remote power plants running on polluting fossil fuels are cut out of the picture altogether.

"It's not totally practical, but because it's easy, people are already all over it," Nocera said. "Being a scientist, I can play outside the rule box."

Active field of work

He said colleagues at MIT's electrical and mechanical engineering departments have already committed to working with the research, which MIT has patented. The work came out of a university-wide energy initiative launched in 2006.

Nocera said that an MIT-Abu Dhabi venture, called Masdar City, to create a self-powering "sustainable city" in the middle east could be a proving ground for the storage method.

On-demand, or "dispatchable," energy storage holds back broader adoption of renewable energy sources like solar and wind. But it is an active area of research and development for centralized power plants.

The newest generation of solar thermal power plants will store hot water or molten salt to provide several hours or even days of electricity. Batteries or pressurized air in underground formations are also considered viable, if niche, technologies for power grid storage.

But wide-scale distributed power generation in people's homes, combined with hydrogen fuel cells, is mostly just a vision at this point.

Turner said that many researchers are pursuing the same goal of cracking water to make hydrogen without losing too much energy in the process. Although existing electrolyzers are expensive, the challenge is devising a system that efficient enough to make energy inexpensively.

"If we're successful, then we'll compete with electrolyzers," he said. "If not, we'll have to find another way to get hydrogen."


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