Category Archives: Technology

DigiTech RP360 XP: The best effects pedal I’ve ever used

DigiTech

I don’t often have the opportunity to talk about music gear on this site, so today is doubly exciting as I not only get to do that, but I get to present what is easily the best effects pedal I have ever used – and I’ve used a lot – the DigiTech RP360 XP.

DigiTech RP360XP

DigiTech RP360 XP

The pedal has so much going on, and it’s all implemented so perfectly, it could be difficult to figure out a place to start, so I’ll start with what it is: the pedal is what’s known as a multi-effects processor; it’s like having a bunch of effects pedals in one. There are 99 individual effects you can choose from, things like distortion and flange and delay and chorus and all the other types of effects you can have and buy individual pedals for, but these are all preset into the RP360 itself. Not only that, for the true tone savant, it comes with powerful software that lets you create your own effects via virtual pedals which I’ll talk about later on. One of it’s biggest advantages is that it plugs directly into your PC, bypassing the need for an amplifier. To say it’s convenient is the understatement of the century.

The pedal has many other functionalities which work beautifully as well. First off, there is a chromatic tuner (if you love going down rabbit holes, compare chromatic tuners to the superior, both in function and price, strobe tuners). There is also a drum machine that, surprisingly, works better than any other I have ever used, even those built into Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), with the only handicap being they can’t fill out at the end of a song, meaning play a fill at the very end of the song rather than just cut off the beat, something DAW-based drum kits will do. The thing I have mostly appreciated about the built in drums is that they are very straight-forward beats, nothing fancy like jazz beats or break beats or that nonsense, just good, rockin’ beats. Of course, it also has a  looper, which allows you to play a musical sequence then loop it back so you can play over it, making you a one man band; if you’ve ever seen those people who play at little fairs or sidewalks or cafes, and it’s just one person but they sound like a whole band, they’re using a type of looper – you can actually get pedals that just do that.

Then, there is the pedal within the pedal, as you can see on the right hand side of the device, and which is why this model has the ‘XP’ on the end. Digitech also makes a pedal-less version simply named the RP360, but it’s worth spending the extra $50 and getting the expression pedal (so called because it allows you to alter the impact of an effect in a continuous manner, such as volume or effect intensity). I love that expression pedal; just using it as a volume control is liberating. On the other hand, if you want to use it for wah or other tonal adjustments, you do you. It’s very versatile just in and of itself and really expands the range of what the whole thing can do. I can’t imagine having the RP360 without it; it’s definitely worth the slight overhead.

Something else to keep in mind about these pedals is that unlike plugging your axe into an amp, you plug your guitar into the pedal and the pedal into your PC. This can be more serpentine than it sounds. For example, in my setup, I plug my guitar into the pedal, then plug the pedal into a Focusrite Scarlett Solo seen below – that serves as the interface between the instrument / pedal and the PC.

Focusrite Scarlett Solo

Focusrite Scarlett Solo

This isn’t a post about the Scarlett Solo, so I won’t go into too much detail other than to say you can see there isn’t a lot going on in back; I connected the right and left outputs to a set of Mackie studio monitors and plugged the USB into an open port on my PC – very easy. The front of the thing is where I plug in the pedal using the jack under the little guitar icon (and I only use custom Spectraflex cables – if you’re going to do it, do it right!). Curiously, I have to set the monitor switch to instrument, not line, in order to get proper output levels; I haven’t yet figured out why that is although I’ve been working on it. I also have a separate Blue Yeti microphone I use, so the XLR input there on the left goes unused, at least for now. Here’s the current setup I’m running at home, with an Oculus Rift thrown in for good measure – you can see the DigiTech on the floor, and the Scarlett Solo on the desk. The cable running fro the pedal and into nothing on the floor is what plugs into the guitar. All that’s left now is the cable management.

The setup

The setup

You don’t need to do it this way, you can simply run the pedal itself straight into your PC. That being said, the beauty of this whole setup is the amount of fine control it provides over all aspects of the sound. If I’m playing along to a track while recording, or a music file, or even to YouTube, I can set all the levels independently. I can adjust overall volume using the large dial on the right of the Scarlett while adjusting the levels of the instrument itself using the smaller gain knob, but you have to be careful with those: cranking up the gain can introduce distortion, and while gain is often purposefully used for that, unwanted distortion will destroy your carefully crafted tone. That’s why the light around the smaller dial will flash red if the gain is too high, and flash green if you’re within acceptable range. Of course, there are a myriad other ways to adjust sound through software specific methods such as Windows or app specific audio controls, like the volume within a YouTube video or audio application.

So back to the DigiTech. As mentioned earlier, it has 99 preset sounds built in, with flashy names such as White Limo, La Grange, and my personal favorite effect, DualPetaluma – it’s a nice, fuzzy yet subtle overdrive. Some of the names, such as DC/AC, SabbathVoid, Slayed and Gilmour, are obvious, blatant nods to the type of tone they provide. Here’s the list of all preset tones from the manual:

RP360XP Tones

RP360 XP Tones

As also mentioned earlier, DigiTech has made available software called ‘Nexus’ that gives you the ability to set your own sounds effects and tweak them to your heart’s content by using virtual pedal boards. This brings up two very important points that need to be made: First, if you ever watch a professional guitar player, they will have a pedalboard on stage that they use to change the sound of their guitar depending on which pedals are active and which aren’t, and how those pedals are configured. I have a few pedals in my office, if you can believe it, although there is a vast variety of pedals, effects, and manufacturers who supply them. I’ve included a couple of pictures below; the first is one I just found on the web somewhere, and it shows a tiny sample of the variety available, although those are mainly footswitches, meaning you step on a switch to activate them, whereas footpedals seen in the second picture from my office are more traditional (and colloquially known as) stompboxes, where you step on a pedal to activate the effect. Of course, stepping on the pedal just activates a switch anyway – see how it all comes together?

So many footswitches

So many footswitches

You weren't an 80s metalhead if you didn't have a few BOSS pedals

You weren’t an 80s metalhead if you didn’t have a few BOSS pedals

It’s important to mention footswitches and footpedals because the RP360 replaces all of them with a single unit, but it also includes a bunch of individual, virtual pedals that you can tweak to your heart’s content using the aforementioned Nexus software. The other thing to know about guitar players specifically is that we chase tone eternally, always searching for the perfect sound. It’s like the Holy grail; it’s never meant to be found, the truth is in the chase itself, and good thing, too, because perfect tone has never been achieved by anyone that I’m aware of, and we are all still chasing it.

That’s important because Nexus feeds that addiction. You can string all sorts of virtual pedals together, tweak the settings of each one, and play with tone until the end of time. There are many open slots in which you can store your own creations and make them available from the pedal itself, calling forth the glory of your tonal creations with a simple step on the switch.

Nexus software

Nexus software

As you can see, you can set up a virtual pedal board with an infinite number of pedal combinations and setting for each. Again, when performing live, even for big shows in stadiums or arenas, guitarists will have actual pedal boards that don’t look too different from what you see here, and even the order of how the pedals are daisy-chained can have a big impact on sound with later pedals processing earlier pedals’ sound. But the DigiTech comes to the rescue and puts them all in one, although order still matters. I’d also like to give them credit for so carefully avoiding a copyright issue – these are all modeled after real pedals, and some are pretty close. For example, if you look at the far left, you’l see what they call the ‘Cry Wah,’ when there is an actual line of pedals called the Cry Baby wah, so they’re threading the needle here in some cases.

You can also choose the type of amp the thing models, as different amps often have different sounds (Marshall or Fender for straight up rock walls, Vox, known for the British sound of the 60s, similar to Orange, a versatile amp used for decades which also happens to be my personal favorite brand, and many others). All amps have unique, identifying visual designs and you can see that in the head / cabinet setup at the top of the Nexus window they mimic the visual design of actual amps but not the name, just as they did with the pedals. Very nicely done.

Anyway, you can see how someone could just endlessly tweak from now until the end of time, making slight adjustments in their endless pursuit of the perfect tone. This is also where the user would set the impact of the expression pedal; here it’s set to adjust the volume, which is also my main use for it, although it can additionally be used to set the wah effect and impact. LFO is Low Frequency Oscillator which lets you have an effect, well, oscillate in and out, or ‘breathe,’ as musicians say. I’ve never had the need to use that, so I can’t speak to it here.

The last thing I want to mention about the software is that because the pedal, at least in my case, is not connected directly to the PC, the software doesn’t have any effect. I could run a direct USB connection from the pedal directly to the PC to load the sounds and get firmware updates, but the way my own personal set up is being run, I would have to run an additional USB from the pedal to the PC. Just something to keep in mind.

Finally, I use a free software DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation, called CakeWalk for recording, which is a separate post to itself. I’m currently recording a song called ‘Howl,’ and here’s a screenshot of the DAW in the middle of that process. You can see I’ve already laid down rhythm guitar, lead guitar, drums straight from the pedal, and am getting ready to add vocals, which usually come last. The ‘wolf’ tracks are sound effects which I’ll merge into a single track later.

Cakewalk

Cakewalk

Using the pedal, whatever I play gets recorded straight in, and since I use a separate mic, and the pedal has built-in drums (whose tracks can be a nightmare to separate from any pedal-routed guitar tracks), and it can be used with bass or anything else, I can record whole songs on my own, without having to go into a studio. While I have lots – LOTS – of studio experience, being able to record at home is so nice. I can send tracks I’ve recorded around to others, or they can be sent to me, and so when the principal songwriter of the band I play with writes a new song, we can each record our own parts then mix the whole thing down, or one person can record his part, then send the track to the next person who adds his track, and so on until the song is complete. Really easy and doesn’t require everyone in the same place at the same time for the ever-increasing expense of studio time. On a side note, if you’re interested, you can hear a sample of our stuff, with me on bass, here (pop), here (surf), and here (hard rock).

So let’s give it a listen, see how it sounds, see how it works, and if you’re looking to expand your sound, consolidate your pedals, do some recording, I can’t recommended this pedal enough. It’s not just the best pedal I’ve ever used, it’s one of the best anything I’ve ever used.

360 images with the Gear 360

Gear 360

That title makes roundabout sense. I’m witty today!

I’ve always wanted to try out the Gear 360, a camera that can take 360-degree images and movies that can not only be viewed on your phone, but – for lack of a better and more grammatically-correct phrase – ‘spun around in.’ I recently had a credit applied to my Samsung account that made the normally $200ish camera $99, and I couldn’t pass it up. Just to be clear, we are talking about the newer version, which looks like a ball on top of a little post, not the first version which looks like a golf ball on a tripod.

After returning the first one because it was clearly a used item, the new one finally arrived. I was eager to try it out but had to charge it first, which took some time. The camera itself has a rounded top with cameras on both sides of the golf-ball shaped and sized head. There is a small screen on the camera that provides various bits of information, such as battery level, resolution setting, and so on. There is a power button on the side and record button on the front (The camera is symmetrical, so I’m calling the side with the screen the front, and the side with the power button the back; completely arbitrary). A second button on the side will pair it with your phone, and the Bluetooth pairing needs to happen before it will send images to your phone, obviously. You can also store images on an SD card for download later. As for compatible phones, either Samsung or iPhone; I have a Galaxy, and I have heard it doesn’t work so well with others but I can’t confirm that.

I started with a shot of my office, hoping to see great things, however even though the 360 touts itself as a 4K-capable camera, the results were anything but that, and moving on to some shots of the campus didn’t change anything. Before I show some examples, I should also mention that there is really no way to view them other than on your phone, or by using very specific websites. I can’t just upload them here and expect them to work, I have to have a dedicated WordPress plugin to get them to show properly. In Microsoft’s OneDrive, the picture shows as a flat image that appears clearly warped, while in Google Photos it’s recognized as a 360 image and displayed as such (Direct link to Google photo sample here, you’ll have to click on the little circular arrow in the upper right-hand corner to switch to 360-degree view). OneDrive version is below.

OneDrive representation of a 360-degree photo

OneDrive representation of a 360-degree photo

The pictures are easy to take, and you can do so remotely via the app or from the camera itself. In fact, in the Google version of the above image, if you look closely down the line of the brown trashcan the camera is sitting on, you can see me behind the lattice taking the picture. There are other settings you can adjust as well, and although the pixel count of the images is huge, 5742 x 2736, the quality just isn’t there.

From a distance images look good, and when viewing on a phone they’re definitely passable, but upon closer inspection details are washed out and fuzzy, with lack of detail prevalent throughout. Contrast is poor and edges lose focus. Colors can be good, but are often faded or diluted. Note, for example, the purple trees in front of the building: The color is washed out, as is most of the image, and the detail is terrible.

Overall the image conveys what it represents, but it could be so much better. I adjusted many of the settings but was unable to increase the quality of the settings in any meaningful way. Strangely, the newer version of the Gear 360 actually has a lower resolution camera than the original model, and significantly so: the original had 15 megapixel cameras while the newer model, the one I’m testing, has 8.5 megapixel cameras. That’s a reduction of almost half.

I also haven’t yet had the opportunity to test the video, and I will post updates when I do. Speaking of the significantly lowered resolution in the cameras, it takes proper 4K videos (4096 x 2140 at 24fps, which is the theater standard for 4K), while its predecessor took what is known as UHD video (3840 x 1920 at 30fps, which is the broadcast standard for ‘4K,’ but is not true 4K).

It also has a lower capacity battery as opposed to the first generation Gear 360, 1160mAh v. 1350mAh (milliamp hours), however without knowing the specific power draw of the device I can’t calculate how many hours that translates into. The standard is mAh / draw = total hours of power. I’d guess around an hour, although in my tests on campus and around the house I had plenty of battery life left even after shooting a bunch of pictures, transferring them, and so on.

So, it’s good but definitely not great. I don’t like the downgrade in so many of the specs from the first generation of the device; it’s like when the clock would tick backwards in school before the bell finally rang for recess. I know something good is coming, but the Gear 360 is at once a step forward and a step back. If they can improve the quality of the images for viewing at a larger scale, then they could really have something here. And it’s not like there isn’t competition: The next most popular would likely be the Ricoh Theta, which, from what I’ve read, bests the Gear 360 in almost all aspects, but I have no hands-on experience with it.

I’m also using this post to test the plugin for 360 images, and I’m putting all the ones I took below (you’ll have to click to open them up) – let’s see how it does!

Update: How strange. In order to embed the 360-degree images, I installed a plug-in called WP Photo Sphere that works by inserting a shortcode of the form “sphere 1234” in square brackets. In a test post that has nothing but that shortcodes, it worked perfectly. In this post, they don’t work at all, at least on my machine. I have no idea why, I’ve been investigating for almost a week but I will keep looking into it. It’s a nifty feature when it works.

Update 2: Apparently all I had to do was make the page live. When published, everything worked fine. I did nothing, but I will take all the credit for it. Sweet, sweet credit.

Intel processors revealed to have major flaw, only addressable by OS updates

Intel

UPDATE: I’ve been trying to find out more, but Intel is now claiming it has a fix for the vulnerabilities affecting its chips that it will be rolling out by the end of next week. Details are slim, and I will hold off final judgment of course, but I’ll be surprised if it’s completely effective; these microcode patches can be tricky – it’s not a straight firmware update as it impacts the fundamental operation of the CPU. Additionally, it appears the fixes only address the last five year’s worth of processors. Better than nothing if it works.

Original post follows:

This is bad. It has been announced that Intel processors going back approximately ten years have a major flaw in how they separate the system and software. The details have not been released, but the general idea of the problem is already understood for the most part. To give a very high-level overview of what is going on and the impact of how it needs to be addressed, there is a component of every operating system known as a kernel, that separates the hardware from the software. When a program needs to open a port or save a file to disk or access a printer, or utilize hardware in any other way, it hands off that request to the kernel using what’s known as a system call, and the kernel completes the request (user mode to system mode). The catch is, the kernel is hidden from the program, even distributed in various memory locations to further hide it so that it can’t be exploited by malicious actors; it has to be loaded at system boot, however, in order for programs to use it.

Intel processors, though, use a kind of predictive processing, similar to client side prediction in games, in which a guess is made as to what will most likely happen next. In the case of Intel processors, they try to guess what code will be run next and load it up in the queue, however they apparently do this without any security procedures. The kernel is kept separate because it can contain confidential information such as passwords (which is why you can’t even get your own passwords back and there is no way to recover them if lost), however if the CPU provides no security check when loading up predictive code, it could, theoretically, run code that would ordinarily be blocked, which could then give savvy attackers access to low-level system processes and data.

But wait, there’s more bad news! Because this can’t be fixed with a firmware update or anything similar, OSs have to be written to address the problem. Linux, Windows, and OSX will all require updates that relocate the kernel in memory. Normally, it’s available to each program in their own process, but that will no longer be the case, and having to go back and forth between user mode and system mode in this manner will incur a possibly-significant performance hit on a PC after these updates, estimated by some to be as high as 30 percent.

Again, the details aren’t yet fully known, and the impact isn’t either, but if proven true it could be the worst design flaw I have ever seen. I’ll update when more is known.

Converting vintage toys into their modern tech equivalents

Tomy Turbo Turnin' Dashboard

I’m not comfortable referring to toys I played with as a kid as vintage, but they are, and what this person does with them is quite inventive. His Nom de Plume is Circuitbeard, and among other things, he converts vintage toys into modern ones, while modifying as little of the original item as possible.

The one that prompted me to write this post is his updating of a classic mechanical driving game – in this case a Tomy Turnin’ Turbo Dashboard game – to instead be a fully functioning, self-contained, OutRun arcade game.

Before we get to that, the original Tomy game was quite an accomplishment in itself. Released around 1983, everything about it was mechanical, from the revs to the fuel gauge to the fake-but-passable digital speedometer. The driving is secondary, really, since there isn’t much to it other than keeping the car in the center of the road via your manual steering and not veering to the side nor crash into the exact same car that kept appearing since the road is really just a looping image. Even if you did, nothing much happened, and remember this isn’t a video game, it’s all mechanical.

It’s a hard thing to explain, so here’s a video that shows how the original looked:

The electronic magician Circuitbeard, on the other hand, took this device and turned it into the game it always wanted to be. Just like Pinnochio always wanting to be a real boy, this game always wanted to play OutRun. The details of how he did it, which are long and impressive, including custom printed PCBs, a custom, laser-cut dashboard, and LEDs that actually represent what’s going on in the game, can be read over at his blog post and I very strongly encourage you to do so. Not simply to experience the monumental creative and technical feat he accomplished, but to see the other vintage toys he has converted. It’s all very masterful, and fascinating.

I’m sure what everyone wants to know is how did it turn out (but don’t skip the details. Seriously!). Here is the video of the final result, and to add to the above paragraph it involved some custom libraries, bespoke 3D-printed parts, multiple controllers; it is not hyperbole to say it may be one of the most brilliant electronics projects I’ve ever seen. He has others, by the way, which are equally as magnificent.

Here’s the video of the final result, and don’t be deceived into thinking this was a simple project. Read his post!

Amazing LED backsplash tiles

LED Backsplash

Now here is something beyond nifty. A company called All Things LED (Be aware: The site is very slow, probably because it’s from Canada, eh) is apparently in the process of developing LED backsplash tiles that can show animations as they they were a pseudo movie screen. Before I get in to more detail, take a look at this video and be amazed:

According to their FAQ page, they did not expect their invention to become as popular as it did, and therefore they don’t have a lot of specifics regarding mounting, availability, installation, etc. They do say it will run $150 per square foot, so be prepared to pay out the sap hole. Additionally, I had read on their site that they have a bespoke controller to control the animations, similar to what is used to control Christmas light animations, and that you can upload your own animations as well, however very curiously both pages that had that information now lead to 404s. I wonder why, perhaps it has something to do with being overwhelmed by the response.

Anyway, I love this kind of stuff, the animations are remarkable, when i designed my kitchen I wanted something very warm and subtle so this probably would not have been terribly appropriate, but I wouldn’t have been able to resist, I’m sure. The snowflakes, the underwater video, the skull motif, at one point they’re even showing a hockey game, of course. I could probably do without the fire, though, that’s something my kitchen can do without. Very neat overall.

An evaluation of my new Mazda CX-5. What’s good, what’s not, the decision-making process, and their curious approach to automotive design and technology

Mazda logo

I don’t normally talk about cars in and of themselves on this site, so despite that, or perhaps because of it, this post will cover a lot. Decision making, design, automotive technology, corporate perspective, individualism, aesthetics v. functionality v. pragmatism, collaborative filtering, and others. It’s quite interesting to me the complexities of making such a big decision as buying a new car and what goes into it. This was not an easy decision.

About two months ago, as I was shooting down the 405 south through Irvine, my 2008 Ford Escape hybrid suddenly lurched forward as though I had dumped the clutch, lost all power (which is especially bad in a hybrid), and forced me to fight the loss of steering to get it off to the shoulder. It was then that I noticed it had also displayed a message on the dash: “Stop Safely Now.”

This sounds bad

This sounds bad

The red exclamation point was a nice, added touch. I did stop safely, but it was a little late for that message. That little event could have been fatal, however after shutting off then restarting the car, everything seemed to be fine. I was hoping that would be the end of it, considering a similar event happened years earlier and restarting the car appeared to have eliminated the problem. This time, however, would be different.

It happened again. And again. After some research, I learned the problem, and a much bigger potential problem: A component used to cool other electronic components in the car had gone bad. Not only that, someone had died because of it and there was a class-action lawsuit in progress because of it. As the car already had over 100K miles, and other aspects of it had never worked properly, I determined it was time to start the hunt for a new car.

I considered many, and for many reasons. I’m not the luxury car type, and didn’t want to overspend, but looked at all my options. Ultimately, the decision came down to the Hyundai Tuscon and the Mazda CX-5. I decided on the latter, but not without some hesitation that I still carry. When there are many options, there is rarely a clear-cut winner, and this particular decision shows the nuanced nature of, and requirement for, an individualistic approach.

To set some groundwork, I wanted a crossover SUV, sometimes known as a CUV, or more colloquially – and derogatory, I assume – a cute-ute. (To clarify some terms, an actual SUV uses a unibody truck frame, whereas a crossover utilizes the crossover body on a car frame). At the same time, while I have always driven cars that seem somehow ‘rugged,’ like a Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Cherokee, Dodge Dakota, then the Escape, this time I wanted something that was a little more upscale, something that had elegance to it, while maintaining a slight, subtle edge.

There wasn’t much that met those criteria. It was easy to narrow down the search to the Hyndai Tuscon, which has an aggressive theme line, and comes with a lot of options, however while I was researching it, I kept seeing reviews – stellar reviews – for the Mazda CX-5. I was ready to buy, but for something like a car you want to evaluate all your options, and I felt I should at least look at the Mazda before making a final decision.

I knew nothing about Mazda. I don’t know anyone who drives a Mazda, and I have never known anyone who drives a Mazda. I am, however, beholden to design, and that will become important very quickly.

On first approach, the vehicles didn’t move me, metaphorically speaking. I walked around the car to set a baseline for myself, yet nothing stood out. However, as I returned to the front of the car, I noticed something: A chrome trim running along the bottom frame of the grill. It made a nice accent, especially when the sun hit it, and the floating, prominent Mazda logo, which hides the radar for the radar cruise control, has a nice presence in an understated mesh grill.

View from the front, at dealership

View from the front, at dealership

Following the line of the chrome accent, I now noticed the lines of the car itself, and what do you know; understated yet still with a subtle, aggressive edge. Narrow, down-sloped headlights, slightly wider at the hips, an ever-so-slightly reclined greenhouse and canted grill gives it a look of movement. In my search I had also been looking for some kind of pearlescent black, but Mazda’s new three-coat metallic red really shines, both literally and figuratively. I have never been a fan of red cars, but this one is beautiful; absurdly, almost comically chrome red.

Side view of car

Side view of car

Front. Note floating emblem and pearlescent chrome red

Front. Note floating emblem and pearlescent chrome red

In the previous two images, be sure to note the commonalities in thematic design between the front and rear lights; I do love a consistent design approach. I was already coming around to the design, but it was the interior that really grabbed me. A wide center console with chrome trim and leatherette boot evokes a luxury-car feel, which is exactly what I was looking for. Chrome-lined air vents, leveled door handles and center console, a dead pedal (totally unnecessary with an automatic transmission, unless you, what, always ride the brake?), and a tri-spoke steering wheel that looks more sports car than CUV. Additionally, unlike most other cars in the class which have two gauges and an info screen in between, this has three gauges, chrome-outlined, with the rightmost gauge being the info screen. That puts the speedometer front-and-center which is exactly where I like it. There’s also double-stitched leatherette and soft-touch everywhere in the black-and white interior which contributes further to the experience. Indeed, the CX-5 is often compared to Audi in terms of its interior feel, and having looked at Audi I honestly believe the Mazda outdoes it thanks to the symmetry and width of the center console.

Here’s a shot of the instrument cluster. Remember how I was just talking about consistent, thematic design? The gauge on the right with the MPG rating, trip odometer and gas gauge is all digital, however you wouldn’t know it at first glance. It matches almost perfectly with the other two gauges and leads to a unified, integrated theme, but with the additional functionalities of a digital display (this is also the gauge that is used to set the radar cruise control and contains some other informational screens). It’s beautifully done, even with the physical protrusion used to reset the trip odometer.

Instrument Cluster

Instrument Cluster

The CX-5 is compared to the Audi for two other reasons, one of which almost solely sold me on the car, and one of which will likely take some significant getting used to.

The first is that unlike almost every other car company out there, Audi being a notable exception, there is a physical knob mounted directly in front of the center console that is used to navigate the infotainment system. You can only use the top-of-dash mounted screen as a touchscreen if the car is stopped. Otherwise you have to use the knob, and I love it. I have always preferred physical interaction methods over digital, and it is because of the desire to have that in areas where it is no longer practical, such as smartphones, that we have haptic feedback and vibration and the like. People like the immediate, organic response, the feel of a physical button that responds notably and demonstrably to a press, as opposed to a tacked on vibration, if at all.

The dial, in all its glory

The dial, in all its glory

The dial is both textured and grooved, enhancing usability, and clicks with each turn, just like a well-designed mouse wheel will do, and can be used as a pseudo-joypad for moving up, down, right and left. It can also be pressed in as a selection confirmation. It’s responsive and tactile; you always know that an input has been received. Mounted around it are physical buttons with long-standard iconography that you can use to go home, back, or direct to any one of the main screens (Media, Communication, Navigation). Being able to control all aspects of the screen via physical input that’s easy to reach, where your hand naturally rests, and not having to reach out to a dash-mounted touchscreen, is wonderful.

The other reason the car is often compared to Audi, although Mercedes-Benz does this as well, is that rather than have the screen of the infotainment system in the dash itself, it is mounted on top of the dash, as though someone just smashed its vertical edge right in there. At first I really didn’t like it, it looked clumsy and tacked-on, and I am all about integration in design, but once I overheard someone describe it as ‘looking like a drive-in movie screen,’ I was hooked.

I think I'll add some tiny plastic cars and a little drive-in marquee.

I think I’ll add some tiny plastic cars and a little drive-in marquee.

The thing I didn’t realize at first is that by having the screen mounted in such a way, your eyes don’t have to travel too far to see it. To look at a dash-mounted screen your eyes travel almost twice as far, and are off the road for longer. The way Mazda has mounted the screen is actually safer, and I find it to be much more comfortable as well.

Even with the endless praise I have for the physical input methods the car employs, and the location of the infotainment – a word I really don’t like – screen, the system itself leaves much to be desired.

While almost every other auto manufacturer on earth has adopted Apple’s Car Play and Android Auto systems, Mazda stubbornly continues to resist, and this leads to a number of issues that go beyond the lacking software integration.

The fact is, Mazda’s system is behind the times. WAY behind the times. It’s slow to boot up, and chugs and skips while doing so. While on first glance it looks quite clean, with only 5 options, navigating within those options can be a chore. For example, I connected my phone via Bluetooth, something they had me do at the dealership, and while the process was easy and worked the first time, issues became apparent almost immediately. Text alerts and calls worked fine, with clear sound on both ends and snappy response, however when streaming music the usability, or lack thereof, rears its ugly head. I have about 700 artists in my music collection, and there is no way to jump to a particular one, or even navigate by letters of the alphabet. So if I wish to listen to, say, Thin Lizzy, I have to use the knob to scroll, and scroll, and scroll, and scroll, and scroll, and scroll, and scroll, and scroll, and scroll, and scroll…you get the idea. You also can’t wrap the scroll, meaning scroll off the top and have the list appear at the bottom or vice-versa, and the tiny red handle in the below image really illustrates how long the list is. The system menus are byzantine but that’s no different from any automaker, or any software at all for that matter.

Scrollin' Scrollin' Scrollin, keep that songlist scrollin'.

Scrollin’ Scrollin’ Scrollin, keep that songlist scrollin’.

Another odd experience is at one point my phone connected, but the car said it couldn’t access media on the phone. It could make calls and receive alerts, but couldn’t see the music and threw an error. However if I played a song on my phone, the song info came up on the car screen and the song played through the car stereo. Very weird. Eventually, and without rhyme or reason, it connected again and all was working fine.

Design concerns continue to abound in the interface, with the main being there’s no flash to the screen. What I mean is, the display is very pedestrian. While others (like the Tucson) will show full color images of the XM stations’ logos and has a graphic that looks like a radio dial if you’re tuning the radio, Mazda’s screen is very bland. On top of that, when listening to XM it bizarrely cuts off information about song and artist, even though there’s plenty of room left on the screen. The navigation screen is more lively and functional, but still tough to navigate (get it?) although it does work well once information is entered. When one considers the time and effort they put in to the overall design of the rest of the car, something they call Kodo, it is baffling they have slacked so much with this. Their information screen in the instrument cluster is full color and informative, using images and text to convey information from cruise control to fuel economy, so I am at a loss as to why the dash-based system is the way it is. Again going back to the Tucson, their screen on the top models is eight inches, full-color, and beautiful, although to be fair on lower models, the screen is only a four-incher and much more difficult to see. Of course, their screen is also exclusively touch, and navigating up and down on one of those is pure hell.

To top it all off, the actual display area of the Mazda’s screen doesn’t utilize the entire surface of the enclosure as you can see in an earlier image.

But I hold out hope. There has been significant vocalization from owners regarding this, and earlier this year Mazda informed Cars.com that they would be coming out with an Apple CarPlay and Android Auto update in the future. They didn’t give any exact dates, however the rumor is later this year. The thing is, they would have to overhaul the system to do it. They wouldn’t be able to shoehorn that functionality into the current interface in any meaningful, or non-crap way, so I am hoping when (if) the update comes, it will be a complete refresh to the whole system that reinvents it from the ground up. That would enhance the experience of this car in a big way.

Even with all my criticisms, there is so much to like. Along with my praise for the interior and exterior design discussed earlier, it has keyless ignition and entry with a detachable valet key, the car locks automatically and unlocks via a button in the handle if the key fob is in your pocket. The doors open wider than its competitors to make getting in and getting out – or, if you’re an engineer or designer, ingress and egress – easier. The radar cruise control will allow you to set a car-length distance to the car in front of you, and the Mazda will follow that car exactly without you having to do anything. It will speed up and slow down, even stop, then start again as the car in front of you does. It has a pseudo heads-up display that will show when the car shifts, blind spot alerts, the speed limit, any street signs in view (it will actually show graphics that look like red stop signs, yellow yield signs, speed limit signs with the actual speed limit, etc. It’s a neat feature), your current speed, and navigation arrows if using that feature, and amazingly does it without feeling cluttered. This is a significant safety feature as it doesn’t require taking eyes off the road for status information. The drive is by far the best driving experience of its class, with smooth shifts and almost no roll around corners, which is due to the vehicle’s unnoticeable transfer of weight to the front wheels when making turns, which keeps the car responsive and easy to control; the most apparent indicator of this is that the people inside the car don’t feel a compelling urge to lean into turns. I programmed my garage-door opener to a button on the mirror, so now the mirror opens the door and I don’t need to have the thing clipped to my visor. I have two different garage door openers for two different doors, and the mirror has three buttons, so I’m set. It has a sport mode that holds the gears longer for somewhat higher revs and offers up a little more power, and a weird manual shifting ability that I can’t imagine anyone would actually use.

Speaking of the Heads-Up Display, in the picture below, if you look closely you can see it as it appears while parked in the garage. When driving it contains much more information yet is still easy to read and interpret.

Heads-up display

Heads-up display

In the following image taken while driving (don’t do this, kids), you can see the speed limit sign and the current speed, as well as the indicators telling me I’m in the lane which is always good. Control signs such as stop and yield can be shown, in full color and shape, concurrently with the speed limit along with the other status indicators listed above.

HUD while moving

HUD while moving

HUD with Navigation

HUD with Navigation

So what about the Tucson? The one I was all ready to buy? I still like it, and I’ll even confess that it gives you much more for about the same money. It has a nice outer design, ventilated seats (not cooled, as some will say), the far superior infotainment screen and system, a rear hatch that opens if you just stand next to it, a 360-degree camera and backup camera that will show you where your car is and where it will be based on how you turn the wheel (the Mazda has a backup camera that works very well, but without that added future prediction bit). The Tucson also has a panoramic sunroof, which while nice, doesn’t actually open all the way and I have heard it suffers from some mechanical problems. The CX-5 has a moonroof and I rarely used the one in the Escape anyhow, so I suspect I’ll be fine with that.

Even so, driving the Tucson just didn’t grab me. It drove well enough, but wasn’t exciting, and the interior was functional and pragmatic, but not special in any way. It offered more, but the experience of being in it and driving it just didn’t excite me or make me want to drive it, and while I can more than understand why someone would choose it over the Mazda as I almost did, I am beholden to the design, the experience, the feel of something, and in that regard Mazda just blew it away as it does to all its competitors at this price point, and some even higher.

It will take some getting used to. I drove the Escape for 10 years and put a lot of miles on it. The washers never worked, all the power-window risers broke at one point or another with a loud crash as the window collapsed into the door frame, the interior lights became stuck on at one point and I had to pull the fuse, the hatch didn’t always close all the way, the electronic clock didn’t even give the correct date. It told the right time and day, but not date. I think it might even have driven around on its own at night committing crimes. Yet I still felt a pang of sadness seeing it sitting in the dealer lot, dirty and looking dejected; I had to tell it goodbye. When they took away my beloved Dodge Dakota, back in 2008, I shed a tear. Curious how we become attached to, and even empathize / sympathize with inanimate objects, something we talk about in several of my classes.

The old and the new. I feel sad looking at this picture.

The old and the new. I feel sad looking at this picture.

If Mazda follows through with their system / firmware update, something that should be doable through one of the car’s many USB ports, I will update this. I am following any little bit of news I get and am hoping we hear something more concrete in the near future.

The new Samsung Galaxy S8+

Samsung Galaxy S8+

I’ve been using my new Samsung Galaxy 8+ for a few weeks now, and must say I like it. It has a slew of new features such as the occasionally functional face-recognition method of login, which according to Samsung I should not use if I have a twin, and I end up using the login PIN about half the time anyway, since wearing sunglasses, being in bright/low light, having your head at a different angle than what the phone expects, or wearing a Freddy Kreuger mask all seem to interfere with its accuracy. It also eschews the previous models’ physical home button for an on-screen equivalent, which can sometimes get lost in app overlays, and the back button rotates with the orientation of the phone which means it sometimes points up, not back. Plus it no longer comes in glorious gold, but I did get a neat metallic grey-blue.

Samsung Galaxy S8+

Samsung Galaxy S8+

The metallic blue branding on the box let me know I was in for something special. I wasn’t such a big fan of the quick start card telling me to follow the instructions on the phone, which in turn told me to follow the instructions on the card. I was almost stuck in an infinite loop.

Lovely Blue Lettering

Lovely Blue Lettering

Hmm...

Hmm…

Even with those caveats, it’s a great phone. It comes standard with 64GB of internal storage, however I popped in a 256GB MicroSD and have enough storage for everything. While other Galaxy’s supported this, my previous S5 did not and I ran out of space almost immediately, which caused repeated battles with those pesky storage demons for months on end. On the front, the S8+ is adorned with a magnificent 6.2 inch AMOLED screen that wraps around the edges, an ‘Infinity Screen’ as Samsung brands it, and you can slide in panels from the edge that house frequently-used apps. I never do that, but you can.

In the US, the phone runs on an 8-core Qualcomm Snapdragon at 2.35 GHz, which is powerful but on-par with competitors. International markets get Samsung’s own 8-core, ARM-based Exynos processor running at the same speed. Both are plenty fast and more than capable for most mobile applications, especially with 4GB of RAM packed in alongside. I was hoping to use Qualcomm’s own Vellamo benchmarking suite to put it through its paces, however it was nowhere to be found, so I fell back on the stalwart and well-established GeekBench 4, which provided a comparatively average single-score of 1830, but a scorching, second-place multi-core score of 6032, placing it only behind Huawei Honor V9. I should also mention that the scores earned by the phone are much higher than what they are reporting for the S8+ on their site.

GeekBench 4

GeekBench 4

(It needs to be mentioned as a warning that I also intended to use the well-known and oft-utilized AnTuTu mobile benchmark, however on boot it insisted I download an additional ‘phone verification app’ and even loaded the Play store to do so. I don’t know why it would require that, I’ve never heard of such a thing, it sounded very fishy, and the reviews of it were foreboding. Therefore, although I like AnTuTu generally, I must recommend that you not use it for mobile bench marking purposes.)

I was also quite pleased at the 3500 milliamp battery life: Using Google Maps for navigation, after an hour of use my battery power was still in the high 80 percentile, whereas the Galaxy S5 would have been long dead by then. Speaking of which, it also supports Qi wireless charging, however be aware that is a misnomer: While you can rest the phone in a dock and have it charge thanks to two coils in the back, the dock itself still has to be plugged in. It doesn’t just magically charge from the air, although I am still waiting for that feature. The 12-megapixel rear camera takes stunning photos, and you can even elect to have them stored in RAW format. May as well, you’ll have the room. I don’t use the front camera except for the once-in-a-blue-moon mobile Skype call, so I can’t comment in any meaningful way on its quality, however it’s an 8 megapixel component.

In the first image below, taken at a mid-level setting and moving at ~70 miles an hour, the wind farm comes out quite clear with separation among colors from the rich blue at the top to the white of the mills in the center (even considering the haze that muddies the contrast along the horizontal center) and the darker colors of the earth and road at the bottom. Minimal blur with good color even at speed. Below that, a few pictures from my trip to Monsterpalooza in Anaheim, and even in low light conditions there is still sharp contrast and detail, except when an area of the image was in competition from multiple light sources as can be seen in the sign to the right of Frankenstein.

Wind Farm

Wind Farm

Another aspect of the phone I really appreciate this time around is when a known or suspected scam call comes in, the phone displays the contact name either as ‘Potential Fraud’ or ‘Potential Spam.’ I don’t know what the difference is, and like to think I could guess it anyway, but there have been no false positives or missed calls because of it so far. Also note the beautiful 1080P screenshots the phone takes.

Potential Spam

Potential Spam

I’ve been very happy with it so far. I haven’t had the chance to run it though its paces save for some movie streaming from my Plex server, which worked flawlessly, and with everything else it hasn’t hiccuped, stuttered, or frozen up yet. It doesn’t even get as hot. I’m still not thrilled about the lack of a physical home button, and once I transfer over all 13,672 files in my music library and see how it handles that in terms of performance and usability I’ll have a better idea of its overall capabilities. They’re also sending a complementary GearVR version 3, but every two weeks they inform me it will take six to eight weeks so I don’t know when it will get here, but with the S8’s USB type C connector, it won’t work with my old version 1, but I’ll update as soon as I can put it through it’s VR paces too.

IoT skills, deployment lagging behind expectations

Your data is here

Because I am teaching a project class in ubiquitous computing this quarter, I was struck by a post on the BPI (Business Performance Innovation) network discussing the results of a survey they conducted along with Nerdery and the Internet of Things Institute that states while industry does genuinely wish to adopt IoT strategies and deployments, they’re not happening as quickly as their enthusiasm might make it seem.

I can’t say I’m surprised by this. The most striking statistic as one reads through the report is that “…just 1.5 percent of executives at large companies say they have a clear vision with implementation well underway, while another 57 percent are either beginning implementation, have pilots underway or are committed and in the planning stages.” It’s the ‘clear vision’ aspect of this that is truly telling, especially when paired with the rest of the sentence. Immediately the question that presents itself is ‘If only 1.5 percent of executives have a clear IoT vision, how is it that 57 percent can be at various stages of design and/or implementation if they don’t?’

One clarification: In my class, and for the purposes of simplicity, we use Ubiquitous Computing and Internet of Things (IoT) interchangeably, however they’re not quite the same and I do let my students know that. The IoT is a subset of the concept of Ubiquitous Computing, the platform on which it’s enabled, similar to how the Internet is the technical foundation on which the Web operates. With that out of the way, the one issue I run into more than any other in this course is the belief of a small contingent of students that it should be a programming course, that they should be learning how to program sensors and the IoT protocols and whatnot. What I explain to them is that anyone can buy a book on how to program for the IoT; what they can’t buy is a book on how to think about the IoT. Like all technologies, IoT technologies can’t, as I tell them ad nauseum, be developed in a metaphorical vacuum. The technical issues of networking, the pragmatic issues of security and privacy, the enterprise issues of data collection and management, as well as many others, all must be considered as well when developing and deploying IoT strategies. After all, they’re not called strategies for nothing.

The second most common issue that comes up in this course is the question of what exactly the Internet of Things is. What defines it? What separates it from the regular Internet? Is that not an Internet of Things as well? How are they delineated? And where does ‘The Cloud’ fit in to all of this, if at all? Is that part of it? As is the case with all definitions, it can often depend on who you talk to. generally, in my class we define it terms of its low-power devices (sensors being the big ones) and lightweight protocols. However even in that case there can be disagreement and confusion. Do we need to make those delineations? The Internet is the Internet, yes? Do we need to divide it into TWO Internets, one for regular electronic devices and one for low-power sensors? What about our phones? Our TVs? They may be using Bluetooth but they certainly are not low-power, lightweight devices. And while this post isn’t meant to be about the technology per se, there are no fewer than twenty different protocols that can call themselves IoT protocols which has almost immediately led to standards overload. The image below gives and idea of this, although it contains both lightweight IoT as well as heavyweight regular networking protocols and where they fall in the TCP/IP stack.

Some IoT and non-IoT protocols

Some IoT and non-IoT protocols

And here’s this, for good measure, since we’re long past this moment in terms of the IoT. I rail against this all the time, but it never ceases to happen (and you should all read XKCD anyway):

Yep

Yep

True to this idea, The Technology Partnership in the UK states it should be called the Internet of Sensors, not the Internet of Things, since the Internet has always been an Internet of Things. A valid point, in my opinion, but then there’s also this. Let’s make up our minds, people!

And that brings me back to my introductory statistic. The linked article above has the following quote: “In my view, far too much attention is focused on getting the ‘Things” connected and not enough time is spent understanding the data insights that will actually drive the business forward.” That’s exactly right. Everyone is trying to figure out how they’ll get ‘things’ connected and get sensors out there and have an IoT strategy, but to what end? They’re so busy thinking about doing it that that they’re not thinking about why they’re doing it, what it all means, or if they need it, or how it will impact their business, or how it might impact their customers not just in terms of, say, improved customer service but also in terms of privacy and data collection and retention / distribution.

It’s important to take a step back and consider the gestalt of the IoT, and all the concerns and considerations that go along with it. It’s not a programming exercise; that’s just one low-hanging leaf on a vast tree of issues. I would hope that some people would be willing to take a step back for a moment, away from the headlong rush to have an ill-defined IoT strategy or deployment, and simply consider what it all means. We can all rush forward after that.

I am completely OK with this

The emojis will be with you, always

Now this I have no problem with whatsoever, although it hints at a larger issue. Researchers at University College London have discovered a dormant but massive Twitter botnet comprised of an estimated 350,000 fake accounts that does nothing but tweet out random quotes from Star Wars novels.

(Full report here)

They discovered it quite by accident while taking a pure random sample of English-speaking Twitter accounts. It’s important to note the importance of this sampling method, as other methods of sampling might bias the results in favor of those accounts that are more active or have more followers. Their one percent sample resulted in approximately six million accounts.

Once their random sample was complete, they plotted the geographic distribution of these users, and they discovered something curious. Many of the tweets formed an almost perfect rectangle along latitude/longitude lines, including open, uninhabitable places like frozen tundra and bodies of water. They conjecture the shape was deliberate to mimic where English-language tweets are most likely to originate, and hide them within the clutter of legitimate Twitter users Tweet flood.

Upon further investigation, the researchers found another surprise. All these Twitter accounts did was tweet out random passages from Star Wars novels. They also never retweet, they send out very few tweets (around ten total) and list ‘Twitter for Windows Phone’ as the tweet source. As much as I hate to say it, that is also likely a ploy to get them to stay under the radar as much as possible because of that platform’s significantly low user base.

It’s not Twitter, but Darth Vader actually posted this on Instagram. Seriously.

It’s not Twitter, but Darth Vader actually posted this on Instagram. Seriously. He doesn’t even care about that stormtrooper behind him.

Using a machine-learning word association approach (a ‘classifier,’ although classifiers are not limited to word association), it found that actual users had a very wide distribution of word choice, while the bots used words almost entirely related to Star Wars. Additionally, the platform percentages were evenly distributed for the most part among real users while the botnet was one hundred percent Twitter for Windows Phone. When the numbers are examined, the botnet is easy to see.

The authors then discuss the implications. Clearly, a dormant, low-activity Star Wars-themed Twitter botnet is not a big deal. However, if the creator decided to reactivate the botnet in order to create a spam network, send malicious messages, or use it for other nefarious purposes, they could. I personally don’t believe that will happen as it likely would have already, however as the authors also note, the botnet went out of its way to stay under the radar.

One of the things I find most interesting about it all is that the authors hint they found another, even more massive Twitter botnet using the same approach, which they will be reporting on at a later date.

Really interesting stuff, and touches on the impact of social media, machine learning and AI, cybersecurity, and geolocation/geotagging just to start (as well as the curious motivations of this particular botnet’s creator). I very much recommend giving it a read.

Panasonic introduces a transparent TV

Transparent screens are nothing new, at least not in science fiction. The most well know, I would argue, is the interface from Minorty Report, as seen in the header image, but there have been many others. Consider, for example, the PADD (Personal Access Display Device) from Star Trek, which was only made transparent recently. Also, they weren’t very good at naming things.

PADD from Star Trek

PADD from Star Trek

There is also the tablet being used by Liara from the popular video game Mass Effect 3.

Liara using transparent tablet

Liara using transparent tablet

 

And let’s not forget Avatar. Or The Avengers. Or The Empire Strikes Back. Or Futurama. Or even this thing that lets you interact with the screen from the front and the back. There were even rumors floating around that Apple was going to be introducing a transparent iPhone and iPad, with some going so far as to render their interpretation of it.

Transparent iPad

Transparent iPad

Transparent phone that was apparently supposed to be a real thing but then wasn't

Transparent phone that was apparently supposed to be a real thing but then wasn’t

It seems the main point behind these is to make them look more future-y, however while they are certainly technically feasible, their practicality is open to debate. A transparent screen leaves open whatever you’re doing to the eyes of everyone around you, there would be no privacy and a serious lack of security.

But what about a TV? A transparent TV that you use for watching, but when you’re not watching it, it just…disappears? Fades into the decor of the house, perhaps, without actually having to motorize it or hide it somewhere.

Panasonic has done just that, developing a TV using OLED technology, in which pixels give off their own light, in order to create a TV that is legitimately watchable while in use, and almost completely transparent when not. The catch is that the screen is made from a fine mesh which is then overlayed on actual, transparent glass. You don’t see the mesh when it is off, and you don’t notice it when it’s on. Genius.

Panasonic transparent TV (Photo credit: Techspot)

Panasonic transparent TV – can you see it? (Photo credit: Techspot)

It’ll be a few years before we see any type of commercial availability, but in the meantime, enjoy a gif of the process as seen on The Verge, who, I might add, really don’t want you downloading their gifs.

Going Up