Database migration.

I spent way too much of last Sunday figuring out how to import over 300 articles from my database of published articles into WordPress, to make it easier to find and manage all that work. Those articles are now visible in the published work category here in my blog.

I also switched this site to the impressively flexible and powerful Suffusion theme by sayontan, who provides excellent support for the theme on a public Suffusion support forum.

The old writing database was something I built a few years ago from scratch, using PHP with a MySQL database on the back end. It was a great learning experience and worked well for keeping track of, and showing off, work that I’d done as a freelancer. What I learned while building that database also helped me build the custom CMS that ran on tinywords from about 2004 until last year.

There’s something really satisfying about building one’s own content management system, no matter how simple or bare-bones. But in the end, managing content in a custom CMS gets to be a pain in the ass, and you look more and more enviously at the features that WordPress users keep getting, without any effort on their part. I was already using WordPress for this blog, so it made sense to consolidate it with my older database.

Fortunately WordPress has the ability to import RSS files, so Sunday’s work was mostly a matter of getting the RSS feed into the right format, making sure it included all the articles, and eliminating stray, non-ASCII characters. In other words, a lot of work tweaking PHP.

The WordPress RSS import tool doesn’t give you much feedback — it just works or it doesn’t — and there are no particular options, so it was mostly a matter of trial and error.

Again: a learning experience.

Database migration.

Polyamorous Headset’s Got Love for Xbox, iPhone and Skype

Polyamorous Headset's Got Love for Xbox, iPhone and Skype
Astro’s new A30 headset has more options than a room full of Wall Street executives. Want to use it with your Xbox 360? No problem. Using Skype on your PC? Plug in the boom microphone. Hitting the road with an iPhone? No problem, there’s an inline microphone, too.

It’s designed to go from gaming console to mobile to computer with a maximum of flexibility, and it works. The Astro A30 sounds pretty decent for music, too.

Astro Studios made its name as the industrial-design firm behind the Xbox 360, Alienware computers, the HP Blackbird and Firebird, and more. And the company’s $200 A40 headset quickly became standard-issue at Major League Gaming tournaments after it came out in 2008. The A40’s an impressive, over-the-ear headset, but it’s a bit bulky for everyday use, and its open-back design means sound leaks out. That’s not ideal for an office environment.

So Astro followed up this month with the A30, a smaller, more consumer-friendly headset. It sits on your ear (instead of enclosing it) which means it’s not as comfortable for extended periods, despite the soft plush pads. But it’s a closed-back design with less propensity to subject your officemates to stray beats.

The A30 includes a removable boom microphone that’s easy to plug in or unplug, so it serves well as a Skype headset. An inline microphone means it’ll work as an iPhone headset too, if you’re bold enough to wear the thing outside. And if you do wear it out, you’re probably the type to be interested in Astro’s swappable speaker covers: They click into place with magnets and you can order stylish replacements on the company’s website.

The company doesn’t stint on extra cables (and they’re not the skinny, flimsy kind that come with most headphones; these are substantial 1/8-inch thick cables.) The whole kit comes with a sturdy traveling case, and you’ll need it if you’re going to carry all this stuff.

Sound is good, with strong (if slightly excessive) bass and clear, bright highs. The earpads block most office sounds, so you can focus on your music instead of your neighbor’s.

The A30 is a little fatiguing for long periods of wear, but it’s a good, all-purpose headset for a wide range of uses. If all you care about is sound and classic good looks, a cheaper headphone is probably going to do you just fine.

But for listening to music, Skypeing and playing games, the A30s are a competent all-around utility headset.

WIRED Optional, plug-in boom microphone plugs into a jack right below the left speaker — why don’t all headsets work this way? Inline microphone for when you’re using your iPhone on the bus. Huge complement of extra cables and connectors. Good, balanced sound for music, games or VoIP.

TIRED Inline controls are limited in utility and confusing to use. No inline volume control. Headset is on the bulky side, especially for street wear. Can be tiring to wear for more than an hour.

  • Manufacturer: Astro Gaming
  • Price: $150
  • Rating: 6 out of 10

Astro Gaming A30 Headset | Wired.com Product Reviews.

Polyamorous Headset’s Got Love for Xbox, iPhone and Skype

You Could Easily Swallow This 32-GB MicroSD Card

electron microscope photo of cross-section of 32GB microSD card

Two — no, three — things in life are sure: Death, taxes, and the fact that storage manufacturers will continue to cram ever-more ridiculous quantities of memory into tinier packages.

SanDisk announced a new 32-GB microSDHC card on Monday, effectively doubling the maximum storage capacity of the tiny, less-than-dime-sized memory chips found in many modern smartphones. This is the maximum capacity that the HC-format microSD cards can hold, so any further advances will have to wait until manufacturers start installing microSD-XC slots in their phones.

The advance means it is now possible to swallow an entire 7,000-song iTunes library, or 10 hours of uncompressed HD video, without gagging.

SanDisk says its new card will be available for purchase on its website starting Tuesday, and through retail channels shortly thereafter.

(Samsung announced a 32-GB microSD card earlier this year, but the card does not appear to be available to consumers yet.)

With a retail price of $200 and a weight of just 0.5 grams, you’ll want to be extra-careful with this minuscule memory chip, as it’s worth about 11 times its weight in gold.

To achieve the increased capacity, SanDisk did two things: Switch to a 32-nanometer production process, and stack eight memory chips vertically inside the microSD card.

The first change refers to the size of a typical memory component, which is now around 32nm, or about the same size as the circuits used in Intel’s latest Core i3 and Core i5 chips. Using smaller circuitry enables the company to cram more bits onto a wafer of silicon.

The second change is pure micromechanical engineering. Although a microSD card is only 1mm thick, including the plastic housing, SanDisk’s engineers have managed to squeeze a vertical stack of eight memory chips inside it. Each chip holds 4 GB of data, so altogether the stack holds 32 GB.

“You’re basically talking about an entire jukebox on a flash memory chip the size of your pinkie fingernail,” said SanDisk vice president Eric Bone.

SanDisk microSDHC Cards (product site)

SanDisk First to Ship 32 Gigabyte microSDHC Card (press release)

Photos courtesy SanDisk

Originally published on Wired’s Gadget Lab blog

You Could Easily Swallow This 32-GB MicroSD Card

The Woodstock of Physics

a ballroom full of physicists, 1987

1987: Thousands of physicists crowd a ballroom at the New York Hilton for a hastily arranged marathon session on high-temperature superconductivity. The event generates so much excitement that it is later referred to as the “Woodstock of Physics.”

Discovered in 1911, superconductivity is a phenomenon in which certain materials, at very low temperatures, become essentially transparent to electricity: Their resistance drops to zero and electrons can flow freely, with perfect efficiency.

However, for most of the 20th century, superconductivity was only observed at extremely low temperatures, just a few degrees above absolute zero. From 1973 on, physicists had not been able to induce the phenomenon at temperatures higher than 23 degrees Kelvin.

Then, in 1986, a number of researchers achieved breakthroughs with new materials. K. Alex Müller and J. Georg Bednorz at IBM’s Zürich Research Center discovered a new class of ceramics, known as perovskites, that became superconductive at 30 K. “I celebrated this with one or two beers,” Dr. Bednorz told The New York Times later.

Other researchers in Tokyo and Beijing confirmed the Swiss results, and then in February 1987, American physicist Paul C.W. Chu demonstrated superconductivity at 93 K (minus 283 degrees Fahrenheit), or 16 degrees above the boiling point of nitrogen.

While still very cold, the finding was a significant breakthrough, because it meant that relatively inexpensive liquid nitrogen — which is cheaper than beer — could be used to cool superconductors. It opened up the possibility that these unusual materials might find practical applications, such as powerful magnets for mag-lev trains or superefficient power transmission lines.

Chu’s paper was published in the March 2 issue of Physical Review Letters. It was just a few weeks before the annual meeting of the American Physical Society, and interest in the subject was so high that organizers hastily threw together a session on the topic, starting at 7:30 p.m. on March 18. Eager physicists lined up as early as 5:30 p.m. for the session, and eventually more than 1,800 physicists crammed into a ballroom meant for 1,100. An overflow crowd of 2,000 more watched the proceedings on television monitors.

The session, with 51 presenters, went until 3:30 in the morning.

“It was an electrifying event,” deadpanned Philip F. Schewe, a science writer who was there, according to the Times.

And indeed, high-temperature superconductors captured New York City’s and the nation’s imagination for a short while. Visions of levitating trains and supercolliders danced in the public’s mind. Scientists found that their APS badges got them into Chelsea nightclubs for free. Newspapers wrote about superconductors. Funding for superconductors surged.

(The Superconducting Supercollider, or SSC, kicked off just the year before with a $200 million congressional allocation. It would be killed in 1993, and the SSC is incomplete and abandoned today, through no fault of the superconductors.)

But most importantly, the breakthrough opened new avenues of inquiry into a phenomenon that is still a bit of a mystery.

The discovery “brought a flash of sunlight on one of the fields … that many of us had thought was rather mature and fairly well-understood,” physicist Douglas Finnemore wrote 20 years later. “It opened a new mindset that materials with complex chemical bonding can lead to totally new phenomena.”

Sources: Wikipedia, American Institute of Physics, The New York Times

Photo: Physicists pack the ballroom for a presentation on high-temperature conductivity, at the American Physical Society meeting in New York in 1987. Courtesy of the American Institute of Physics

Originally published on Wired.com

The Woodstock of Physics

Just How Fast Is Cisco’s New Router? Really Freaking Fast | Gadget Lab | Wired.com

Cisco Tuesday announced a new router, the CRS-3, that it says is capable of delivering 322 terabits per second.

Now, we don’t usually cover routers and similar enterprise hardware here in Gadget Lab, but this one’s worth a brief mention. Let’s leave aside Cisco’s breathless hype (it will “forever change the internet” — yeah, we’ll believe that when we see it). And nevermind the fact that, actually, there are only a handful of people with the technical skills and the equipment necessary to put Cisco’s speed claims to the test, so they might as well claim it delivers 322 kajillion bits per second, because who would know the difference?

Those caveats aside, 322 Tbps is insanely fast. Just how fast? About a million times faster than your typical cable modem (literally). Or, as Silicon Valley Insider puts it, “fast enough to allow every man, woman, and child in China to make a video call at the same time.”

That’s fast.

You could also use speed like that to download the entire Library of Congress in about a second, fill up your iTunes library with over 4 billion MP3 files in about a minute, or download every movie ever made in 4 minutes, SVI says.

There’s more: see SVI’s article for a clever, quick presentation.

Cisco’s New Router Could Let Everyone in China Make a Video Call at Once (Silicon Valley Insider)

via Just How Fast Is Cisco’s New Router? Really Freaking Fast | Gadget Lab | Wired.com.

Just How Fast Is Cisco’s New Router? Really Freaking Fast | Gadget Lab | Wired.com

How OK Go’s Amazing Rube Goldberg Machine Was Built | Gadget Lab | Wired.com

In music, timing is everything. When you’re dancing with an enormous machine, it’s even more important to get the timing correct, down to the microsecond.

For its latest video, released on YouTube Monday night, pop band OK Go recruited a gang of very talented engineers to build a huge, elaborate Rube Goldberg machine whose action perfectly meshes with the band’s song, “This Too Shall Pass,” from the band’s new album, Of the Blue Color of the Sky.

For nearly four minutes — captured in a single, unbroken camera shot — the machine rolls metal balls down tracks, swings sledgehammers, pours water, unfurls flags and drops a flock of umbrellas from the second story, all perfectly synchronized with the song. A few gasp-inducing, grin-producing moments when the machine’s action lines up so perfectly, you can only shake your head in admiration at the creativity and precision of the builders.

Those builders were Syyn Labs, a Los Angeles-based arts and technology collective that has a history of doing surprising, entertaining science and tech projects that involve crowds of people, at a monthly gathering called Mindshare LA.

OK Go developed a reputation for making catchy, viral videos four years ago with the homemade video for “Here It Goes Again,” which features the band members dancing around on treadmills. The company ran afoul of music label EMI’s restrictive licensing rules, which required YouTube to disable embedding, cutting views to 1/10 of their previous level. Now, the new video is up — and it’s embeddable, so the band seems to have won this round with its label — and is already generating buzz on YouTube and on Twitter.

Planning for the video began in November, when Syyn Labs secured a warehouse in the Echo Park area of L.A. But it wasn’t until January that work really got going. The video was shot on Feb. 11 and 12.

“A Rube Goldberg machine is in its essence a trial-and-error thing,” Adam Sadowsky, the president of Syyn Labs, told Wired.

Sadowsky explained how many tiny details needed to be just right for the machine’s timing to work out.

For example, the wooden tracks used to guide metal balls at the beginning of the video had to be cleaned and waxed to keep dust from slowing down the balls and making them stick. And the angle of that board was set at a precise 3.4 degrees of incline, which was perfect for the timing but sometimes led the balls to jump the track.

Given that each of the machine’s dozens of stages need comparably precise adjustments, it all adds up to a lot of labor by a lot of people.

“It took about a month and a half of very intense work, with people on-site all the time,” Sadowsky said.

Sadowsky estimates that 55 to 60 people worked on the project in all. That includes eight “core builders” who did the bulk of the design and building, along with another 12 or so builders who helped part-time. In addition, Syyn Labs recruited 30 or more people to help reset the machine after each run.

Because of the machine’s size and complexity, “We needed to bring in every resource we could to help reset,” said Sadowsky.

Even with all those people helping, resetting the whole machine took close to an hour.

The video was shot by a single Steadicam, but it took more than 60 takes, over the course of two days, to get it right. Many of those takes lasted about 30 seconds, Sadowsky said, getting no further than the spot in the video where the car tire rolls down a ramp.

“The most fiddly stuff, you always want to put that at the front, because you don’t want to be resetting the whole thing.”

OK Go hired Syyn Labs to produce the contraption according to certain specifications. One example: The machine couldn’t use any magic.

“That was really important,” said Sadowsky, “because we are all engineers, and we love magic. We love computers, and servomotors, and fire, and all of that stuff.” All those “magic” tricks — basically anything your mom can’t understand — couldn’t be in the machine.

The band was also heavily involved in the project for the final two weeks of its construction, and the band members are right inside the machine during the video, of course.

“We wanted to make a video where we have essentially a giant machine that we dance with,” said the band’s Damian Kulash, Jr., in a short “making-of” video posted on YouTube.

Otherwise, Synn Labs’ engineers went to town, dreaming up the most outlandish and elaborate mechanisms they could to “dance” along with the music. The results are impressive.

Oh, and OK Go’s treadmill video from last year? It makes a cameo appearance in the machine too.

“It really was a labor of love,” said Sadowsky.

See below for more videos about the making of “This Too Shall Pass.”

How OK Go’s Amazing Rube Goldberg Machine Was Built | Gadget Lab | Wired.com.

How OK Go’s Amazing Rube Goldberg Machine Was Built | Gadget Lab | Wired.com