I recently bought an iPod when I was in America, and have been very happy with it since – it’s proved its worth on many an occasion, including long car journeys. However, when I upgraded to the latest version of the firmware, which offered various significant new features, there was a drastic drop in battery life. Before upgrading, I could expect to get around eleven hours of play. Now, I’d be lucky to get a few hours.

Unsurprisingly, no-one was happy with this on the Apple iPod discussion boards. With Apple staying characteristically tight-lipped about the unacknowledged problem (they generally don’t comment on such things until they have a solution) the users set to work trying to figure out the cause of the problem.

Through a bit of experimentation and a few dozen user reports, the current theory is that the introduction of a clock and alarm feature in the new firmware is responsible for the bad battery performance; I found that after performing a hard reset of the iPod and then turning the alarm off, my battery life was back to normal.

I don’t think it has anything to do with the clock, myself; the iPod has always had a clock, only it’s never been visible before. The alarms however are new, and if having alarms switched on requires the iPod to regularly check the current time against any alarms set (even if you have no alarms set) then it’s very possible that this is the cause of the problem. As for the hard reset, I have no idea whether this is useful or not – I only mention it because some people have turned the alarms off and they still have bad battery performance – perhaps resetting the iPod is necessary to get battery life back up again.

The Media Lab

In one of the slower periods at the lab, I browsed through the mini library we have here and began flipping through The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT by Stewart Brand. It was absolutely fascinating reading – not because the Media Lab is an interesting place, but because the book is fifteen years old.

The book was written a little after the opening of the Media Lab, which is essentially a technology laboratory looking at the cutting edge of ‘neat computer things’ (my term). It’s amusing to consider that if you stripped the book of dates and numbers, then you’d have both a good description of the current state of technology, and also a good overview of the research the Media Lab is still conducting.

For example, there is talk of electronic books – and we’re now at the stage where they could conceivably be on the mass market within half a decade. There’s talk of interactive TV (which we have) and artificial intelligence natural language processors and parsers (which, yes, we still don’t have). Holography is featured quite heavily, and there are the usual predictions of 3D TV – which I really fail to see the point of.

Between them, Brand and the Media Lab get a lot of things right (e.g. Brand: “I’m inclined to believe that the ideal content for CD ROMs are those multivolume reference works and subscription services…” and MIT: “CD ROM is by definition an interactive medium.”) There’s a nice prediction for personal video recorders which almost exactly mirrors what we have with Tivo, and a discussion about the problems of bandwidth.

Of course, what I found most enjoyable were the predictions that were completely wrong, including the fear that not only might DATs (Digital Audio Tape) overtake CDs, but they could result in mass piracy. About email: “[In the US] if it happens by a provider, it’s going to happen when the banks develop a standard and decide it’s in their interest to pay the costs of getting the terminals out there.” And my favorite, half a gigabit is “effectively, infinite bandwidth.” If only it were so…

It seems to me that many of the problems that the Media Lab was looking at back then have been solved and exceeded, in the form of the Internet and innumerable consumer electronics devices. The problems that haven’t been solved reflect a misunderstanding on the Media Lab’s part of the complexities involved in, say, cheap and effective holography, or that old chestnut, AI.


labs.google.com – various neat alpha-stage applications including Google Glossary (works fairly well for the technical terms I tested it with), voice searching and keyboard searching.


Something popped into my head today as I was scribbling down some notes during a supervision: does the fact that I write with a pencil (as opposed to a pen or biro) affect my writing style, and on a higher level, my method of thinking?

Pencils provide a much less constrained and linear way of putting thoughts down onto paper, in that pencil marks can be easily and quickly erased. Thus, I’m not too bothered with making the occasional correction or altering what I’ve written so that it’s more accurate, whereas if I used some non-erasable implement that option wouldn’t be open to me. Conversely, perhaps using a pencil is making me lazy and those who write using pens have less cause to make corrections.

Taking this further, what about writing on the computer? Words, sentences and paragraphs can all be moved about at the click of a button, and rarely does a supervisor not warn us against getting into a habit of writing all essays on the computer, as this won’t help us write essays in exams. I tried writing an essay on paper a couple of weeks ago, and it went down perfectly fine. In fact, I probably did it faster than I would’ve done on the computer since I could draw diagrams quicker. Score one for paper.

As others have said, probably the best solution would combine the qualities of paper and computers – I imagine some kind of smart paper which you can either write on (it has handwriting recognition, naturally) or hook up to a wireless keyboard would be ideal (many people can type faster than they can write). You’d be able to annotate the paper and move sentences and words about with ease, and it’d be intuitive for all users. It’ll probably be on the market in another ten years.


Getting a stereo view of Mars – the boys at NASA are pretty damn clever; they’re planning to obtain 3D images of areas the Mars Global Surveyor has already covered by pointing the spacecraft off-nadir (so it doesn’t point directly down).