Podcast: Bacteria at Your Fingertips

Here’s another podcast from the BBC’s World Business Report: this one is on how to prevent the gunk in keyboards from killing you, and it derives from a Loose Wire piece I did for WSJ.com and The WSJ Asia on September 30. (Subscription only, I’m afraid.) Here’s a snippet:

The gunk in your keyboard could kill you. Really.

An exhaustive poll of my friends reveals that all sorts of stuff is being spilled over the average keyboard: biscuit crumbs, mango, fizzy beverage, the odd stray cornflake, nail varnish, rice, soy sauce, coffee, wine (red and white), hand cream. Under your keys lie a faithful record of every snack, lunch and beverage break you’ve had at your desk since you joined the company. It’s like typing on a pile of week-old dirty dishes.

This isn’t only somewhat gross (and likely to lead to the keyboard’s demise at some point) but it also makes your main data input device a Petri dish of bacteria and other microorganisms that could kill you before the job does. A study conducted by Charles Gerba, a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona, concluded that the computer keyboard was the fifth most germ-contaminated spot in an office. (Topped only by your phone, your desktop — home to an impressive 10 million bacteria — and the handles on the office water fountain and microwave door.) Out of 12 surfaces studied the toilet seat came in cleanest, in case you’re wondering where to have your next lunch break.

Download keyboards.mp3

The Heat in the Kitchen? It’s Bad Design Being Set on Fire

Currently at my mother’s UK flat and frankly horrified at some of the kitchen appliance design I’m seeing here. There’s a Credaplan Microwave (which thankfully doesn’t seem to exist anymore) which sports an interface a succession of PhDs have not been able to fathom. Then there’s a brand new Indesit WIDL146 washing machine which looks nice but has a baffling interface, and its sister, an Indesit IDL40 dishwasher which has a simple enough interface but isn’t clever enough to keep the dish tray from sliding back into the machine when you’re trying to put stuff in it. What is it with these people? Why can’t they design simple appliances?

And don’t get me started on dish mops. For years we’d use sponges on our dishes, or simple mops, and then one day someone had the bright idea of attaching a sponge to a mop handle. The dish mop was born. But you still had to build up the soap suds yourself. Then suddenly someone had the bright idea of putting the detergent in the handle, so it would trickle out into the sponge. Brilliant. Except no one seems to be able to come up with a design that actually works.

First off, there’s the sponge-not-attaching-properly to the handle scenario, as evidenced by the Minky Dish Jet. Looks great, but, as I explained some months back to the company, the moulded clear plastic that serves as a holder for the blue sponge clip “appears to have given way, or deformed in some way, so the blue plastic clip is no longer held in place.” I was disappointed to hear back from the company, not the explanation for the flaw I was looking for, but a bland “I am sorry you have had problems with the Minky Dishjet and will be happy to forward a replacment to you if you care to email me direct with your address details.” What’s the point of another Dishjet if the other one doesn’t work? How existential does one have to get in the kitchen?

Eventually, this visit, I found another kind of detergent-dispersing dish mop, from another British company called Spontex. The Dishmop looks good:

But it’s not. Mine leaked its suds all over the other mops within seconds of being filled, however tightly I screwed the little screwball (I use the technical term here) you can see at the bottom of the handle in the illustration above. It was a messy day in the mop holder cup.

Clearly I’m not the only one having problems with these dish mop things. And the problem is nothing new. Here’s one discussion, and another, both from a couple of years ago. I guess if someone can’t someone design a simple dishmop what hope do we have that they design a simple microwave or washing machine?

Using Technology To Spread The Load

Is this the future of shared machinery. BBC reports of a Spanish washing machine called

“Your Turn”, which will not let the same person use it twice in a row.

It uses fingerprint recognition technology to ensure the job of loading is not dumped on just one individual.

Nice idea. But why stop at washing machines? Bathroom doors that won’t let you go back in if the other folk in the house haven’t had their morning shower; dishwashers, trashbins and cookers; even the household computer. Dog leashes; garden hoses, leaf blowers, lawn mowers.

In the office, one could use it for the paper trays in printers and photocopiers, so one poor sod doesn’t always have to do it. The office canteen microwave; the office coffee maker.

And why not variations on the theme, so, say, lifts won’t work if people have entered the lift before allowing people to get off first? Lift doors that won’t close if users try to shut them before everyone who wants to has gotten aboard? Escalators that stop if users don’t stand to one side to allow others to pass; cars that won’t start if they’re not parked properly between lines so that other cars can park next to them?

The possibilities are endless, as are our peeves. A Monday morning fantasy…

News: Beware The Mobile Phone

 I have long believed that we use mobile phones too much, considering what little we know about the effects on our health. Why is why I like handsfree sets and SMS. Most studies that say they’re bad for us have been pooh-poohed. Here’s another one to throw out because we don’t like what it says.
The Independent quotes a new study from Sweden as saying mobile phones and the new wireless technology could cause a “whole generation” of today’s teenagers to go senile in the prime of their lives. Professor Leif Salford, who headed the research at Sweden’s prestigious Lund University, says “the voluntary exposure of the brain to microwaves from hand-held mobile phones” is “the largest human biological experiment ever”. And he is concerned that, as new wireless technology spreads, people may “drown in a sea of microwaves”.

Column: Project5 and computer music

Loose Wire — So You Wanna Be a Rock Star?: If you still harbour teen dreams of fronting your own band, this new software’s for you – it brings an entire sound system to your PC

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 24 April 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Making music used to involve chunks of metal, miles of cable and roadies called Phil. Not any more.

Take my closet, for example. Taking up most of the space are half a dozen boxes that once formed my music studio (what I’d call my rig when trying to impress people). Among them: a drum, three synthesizers, an effects rack, a compressor box and a mixer. All of this must have cost me at least $2,500 in the early 1990s. Linking them all was a maze of cables producing enough hum to scare away bears. Now it’s all been replaced by a CD-ROM from a guy called Greg.

The CD-ROM in question is called Project5, launched this month by a United States-based company called Twelve Tone Systems, and Greg is Greg Hendershott, the unassuming genius who runs it. I don’t use the term “genius” lightly, but Hendershott is up there in my pantheon of heroes for once producing a program called Cakewalk, which allowed me to hook up all my musical equipment to my computer and do something called “sequencing” — playing them all at once. So, instead of laboriously recording a drum part onto tape before adding a keyboard part, Cakewalk used a standard called MIDI to store the raw data of what was played — which notes, how long you hold them for, how hard you hit them — onto a computer, and then allowed you to tweak it. Cakewalk revolutionized song-writing for people like me, who couldn’t afford to rent a studio or hire musicians, and, most importantly, tended to hit a lot of wrong notes.

Now Hendershott’s done it again. Project5 (about $400 from www.cakewalk.com) is a program that not only stores the raw data, it also provides the sounds, mimicking all your synthesizers and drum machines via an on-screen display that looks like a console on the Starship Enterprise. All you need is a MIDI keyboard to play, and the computer will create the sounds, as well as store, or sequence, them. Suddenly you can tweak the belchings of Shrek, or the timbre of a Javanese gamelan, or record your grand piano and play the whole thing from your PC (no Mac version is available).

Hendershott is not first to the table with Project5: Programs like Propellerhead Software’s Reason ($400 from www.propellerheads.se) are collections of “software synthesizers” that can be played using a MIDI keyboard, or a sequencing program like Cakewalk’s successor, Sonar.

Still, Project5 is definitely the future. It capitalizes on all the standards that have evolved within the computer sequencing world, so that you can easily plug any competing “softsynth” into it and start using it immediately. What’s great about all this is that whereas all my old synthesizers were mostly just banks of sounds — piano, string, thrush warble — that took a rocket-science degree and a weekend to tweak, all the parameters in new softsynths can be tweaked easily and extensively. That all this appears on your screen just like a bank of synthesizers on a rig, along with knobs, sliders, flashing lights, bits of discarded chewing gum, etc., makes me feel as if I’ve died and gone to a sort of synth heaven.

Of course, the computer/music revolution has already begun, and left me way behind. Amateur musicians all over the world have produced a catalogue of electronic dance music that dwarfs the musical output of the past few centuries combined. It is this crowd that Hendershott is aiming at — indeed, his work helped create much of the phenomenon. However, if the computer revolution is to fully realize its potential for musical creativity we need to see programs like Project5 developed for folk who couldn’t tell the difference between a synthesizer and a microwave. Then I think we’ll be hearing some seriously interesting music coming out. Just don’t expect me to create it: I’m too busy selling a cupboard full of cables.