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Monday, May 26, 2008

Empty dwellings in a city desperate for places to live

IN ITS obsession with property prices and housing affordability, Sydney has overlooked a startling fact: the city is awash with empty buildings.

The number of unoccupied residential dwellings in Sydney counted by census workers in 2006 was 122,211, with the highest number found in the inner city. That does not include the thousands of empty warehouses, pubs, churches and shops.

"It's an amazing figure, isn't it? It begs analysis," said Col James, the director of the Ian Buchan Fell Housing Research Centre, in the University of Sydney's architecture faculty. The number was up from 97,889 a decade ago.

"The numbers would be swelling now there are more mortgage defaulters," he said. "There are empty properties all over the place if you know how to look for them."

Some belong to people whose development applications are languishing with councils. Other owners are saving up to renovate.

Hundreds of houses are lying vacant while children who inherited them fight over property rights. Hundreds more become orphan homes after the death of owners with no next of kin.

"Some properties are probably vacant for very good reasons but there are others that are left deliberately vacant," Mr James said. "Property developers get distinct advantages from the Commonwealth Government like negative gearing to alleviate their tax bill.

"They also get a rental subsidy if they say, 'We will make this property available for the rental market.' But they pocket the subsidy, saying, 'We tried to rent it but we couldn't' and then they don't get the hassle of tenants."

The Sydney property magnates Isaac and Susan Wakil are wealthy enough not to need rental subsidies or tenants.

The elderly Vaucluse couple, arts patrons and former darlings of the social pages, have accumulated 15 properties across Pyrmont and the city centre, a portfolio estimated to be worth more than $75 million.

All their buildings and land are vacant, except for the Harris Street headquarters of their company, Citilease - and the ground floor of that is empty.

The Wakils' cream Rolls-Royce can be seen most days parked in the driveway of Citilease but the reclusive couple declined to speak to the Herald for this story.

Mrs Wakil, who was born in the then Romanian province of Bessarabia in 1932, told the Herald in 1961 she still remembered her father being dragged to a Siberian gulag for being a capitalist land owner when she was seven.

After imprisonment in a Soviet concentration camp, her mother died and the young Susan and her aunt escaped to Australia. Her father migrated here after his release.

The Baghdad-born Mr Wakil is rarely seen in public; neighbours, real estate agents and buyers speak of negotiating only with Mrs Wakil.

The Wakils' Griffiths Teas building in Wentworth Avenue is empty but for the telltale signs of squatters past: old sleeping bags, empty longneck bottles, and rubbish.

The heritage listing limits redevelopment opportunities but that has not stopped the offers.

"We were interested in having that building for a boutique hotel conversion," said Paul Fischmann, the chief executive of the Eight Hotels Group, which owns the Diamant Hotel in Potts Point. "The answer we got back was that it wasn't worth her while."

Their other properties include the neighbouring Key College House, several terraces in Pyrmont and an empty corner shop on Harris Street.

"On average, we get about one inquiry a week, mostly from developers who say 'What's the story with this vacant block?"' said Patricia Kho, of Elders Pyrmont. "There are a fair few serious developers who have said that, given the opportunity to purchase, they would go in."

Ms Kho said the Wakils' hoard of vacant properties was a mystery. "It's a question a lot of agents in the area don't know the answer to.

"I know it's a family holding and they don't need to sell. These are properties they bought a long time ago that have been paid off. It will cost them money to do it up and rent it out so they are just sitting on the land value."

One of their most obviously vacant properties is the Terminus Hotel on Harris Street, Pyrmont. Ancient beer ads adorn the hotel's exterior. Its sign is covered with vines, and wooden boards cover broken windows.

"It's been empty for more than 15 years," said Mickie Quick, a co-founder of the squatter's group Squatspace. "We got inside once and changed the locks but we only lasted a few weeks. It was one of the scariest evictions I had ever had. Two hired guns came in with sledgehammers in the night."

Dianne Tipping, the owner of Tattersalls Hotel in Rozelle, said many of the city's empty buildings were former pubs awaiting redevelopment applications. Pubs are among the oldest buildings in Sydney and many need a lot of work.

"The Tattersalls was built in 1879 and really had nothing much done on it since then except a few lean-tos put on," she said. "So [two years ago] I decided to bite the bullet and close it down."

It has been vacant since. She had to wait for her development application to be approved by Leichhardt Council and for her architect to return from maternity leave. Her pub will be refurbished and reopened.

Every year about 1200 vacant houses fall into the hands of the Public Trustee, Peter Whitehead, because people die without leaving a will or heir. "Or sometimes people go missing and leave their houses uninhabited," he said.

Public Trustee staff search vacant properties for wills and seek next of kin in Australia and overseas. If no heirs are found, properties are sold and proceeds go to the state.

"All that can take an incredible amount of time, during which the property is often sitting there vacant," Mr Whitehead said.

Mr James said this was wasteful. He wants councils and insurers to charge higher rates for vacant properties to promote more efficient use of space and to encourage owners to allow squatters, artists, students and the homeless to live in their buildings.

"You get the property development industry bleating about how they need to produce 1000 dwellings a week to meet housing demand," he said. "I say to them, "Well, guys, there's 120,000 houses out there you are not doing anything with."

.. from smh

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Did anyone just feel an earth tremor just now?
I was just sitting on my couch, minding my own biz, and I felt the building sway twice. I'm on the 14th floor.

Serious. Hope there hasn't been another quake somewhere. I know the recent terrible quake in China was felt as far away as Bangkok. Freaky.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Flying Robot Jellyfish

Some nice Parkour videos..

Parkour (sometimes abbreviated to PK) or l'art du d├ęplacement (English: the art of displacement) is an activity with the aim of moving from one point to another as efficiently and quickly as possible, using principally the abilities of the human body.

It is meant to help one overcome obstacles, which can be anything in the surrounding environment—from branches and rocks to rails and concrete walls—and can be practiced in both rural and urban areas. Parkour practitioners are referred to as traceurs, or traceuses for females.

Founded by David Belle in France, parkour focuses on practicing efficient movements to develop one's body and mind to be able to overcome obstacles in an emergency.

.. read more about Parkour at Wikipedia

Taking your laptop into the US?
..Be sure to hide all your data first

Last month a US court ruled that border agents can search your laptop, or any other electronic device, when you're entering the country. They can take your computer and download its entire contents, or keep it for several days. Customs and Border Patrol has not published any rules regarding this practice, and I and others have written a letter to Congress urging it to investigate and regulate this practice.

But the US is not alone. British customs agents search laptops for pornography. And there are reports on the internet of this sort of thing happening at other borders, too. You might not like it, but it's a fact. So how do you protect yourself?

Encrypting your entire hard drive, something you should certainly do for security in case your computer is lost or stolen, won't work here. The border agent is likely to start this whole process with a "please type in your password". Of course you can refuse, but the agent can search you further, detain you longer, refuse you entry into the country and otherwise ruin your day.

You're going to have to hide your data. Set a portion of your hard drive to be encrypted with a different key - even if you also encrypt your entire hard drive - and keep your sensitive data there. Lots of programs allow you to do this.

..read the rest of the article here.

.. try PGP Disk (from pgp.com) or TrueCrypt (truecrypt.org).

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Parkour (free running) ~ first person jumper!

.. a great little video demonstrating the smooth & daring moves in the upcoming game 'Mirror's Edge'. Thegame, from EA DICE studio for Playstation 3, xbox 360 & windows-based PC's, is due to be released late 2008.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Wednesday doodle

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

.. of seafood curry surprises and violent, nihilistic films

My girlfriend had the day off yesterday to study for her upcoming exams, and found that my place was a suitable venue for such study :). When I came home from work I didn't expect her to have cooked me a delicious fish & squid curry as well. Wow, was it good too.

I wish I'd taken a photo, I spose I could still do, of the leftovers in the fridge, but somehow I just don't think it would do the meal justice. I always (very modestly of course) thought that I was the better cook of the two of us, but she just blew me out of the water with this. I was just the most regular cooker. Hehe.

So we sit back last night & ate too much & watched the last 20 minutes of 'Fight Club' which we'd started on Sunday. What a great film. See it immediately if you haven't.

The only thing that would have made the night better would have been for me to not be coming down with the flu with which I'm suffering today @ home with. Bloody flu. Better than being stuck in the aircon in the office.

Times Square vs Star Junction

An excellent comparison between real NY scenery & screenshots from the game GTA4.

Check it out.

"Information is like a life jerky: dried up and not terribly communicative. Through information you come back to the vast set of phenomena that is creating the data in the first place. Experience and the universe itself are intimately bound up with one another. The purpose of the Internet and all its surrounding phenomena is to create a context where experience is universal, and the informational reduction is no longer necessary."

~ John Perry Barlow

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Supercharge Your Canon Camera with Open-Source CHDK Firmware

Digital cameras have powers beyond what is immediately available to the user. On a standard Canon, for example, the fastest shutter speed option offered is 1/1,600 second, but the hardware can handle much more than that -- up to 1/60,000 of a second.

CHDK, the Canon Hacker's Development Kit, is an open-source software project that can be loaded on cameras using Canon's DIGIC II or DIGIC III firmware platforms. It unleashes new features including RAW file format, live histogram display, a battery readout, and the ability to run scripted actions on a camera.

CHDK does not replace the existing firmware on your Canon, so the process is completely reversible. The existing firmware stays intact, while the CHDK software is loaded on demand from an SD card.

  • Unlimited Interval Shooting -- Use your camera for surveillance, or use it to shoot at precise intervals during a lunar eclipse or meteor shower.
  • High-Speed Shutter -- Use this override option in the AllBest firmware to explore life's littler moments. You can also override the camera's slowest shutter speed settings to shoot exposures of a minute or longer.

.. continue reading article here
.. official wiki here

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

New game gizmo uses mind control

An Australian company is gearing up to release a computer headset that allows people to control video games using only the power of their minds.

Emotiv Systems, founded by four Australian scientists in 2003, will release the $US299 ($315) EPOC headset on the US market this year. Australians will be able to order it online.

Featuring 14 sensors that measure electrical impulses from the brain, the headset - which plugs into the PC's USB port - will enable games to register facial expressions, emotions and even cognitive thoughts, allowing players to perform in-game actions just by visualising them.

The headset works in a similar way to voice recognition, in that it must first be calibrated using Emotiv's software to recognise patterns in the user's electrical brain impulses, which are used to perform 30 preset actions.

When the player performs those same thoughts in the game the software knows to associate them with the correct action, such as rotate object or push object.

"If you look at the way we communicate with machines up to this day, it's always in a conscious form, so whether you turn on and off the light or you program software you always consciously tell a machine to perform a task for you," Emotiv CEO and co-founder Nam Do said in an interview from the company's Pyrmont offices.

"But the communication among ourselves is much more interesting because we have non-conscious communications, so we read body language, we read facial expressions and we also have feelings and emotions which differentiate us from machines.

"Our vision for the next generation of man-machine interface is it's not going to be limited to just conscious [interaction]."

While the headset will work in a very limited sense with existing titles, Do said the major game developers and publishers were designing a number of their upcoming titles to take full advantage of the technology.

For instance, an in-game avatar would be able to mimic the human player's facial expressions - smiles, winks, grimaces, and so on - in real time, and other non-human characters in the game could respond to these.

"If you shoot somebody and you're smiling, the non-player character can turn around and say to you, 'What are you laughing at? You just killed that dude,' " Do said.

The headset could also detect the players' emotions - whether they're bored, angry, engaged, happy, stressed, etc - and adjust difficulty levels, in-game music and the game environment accordingly.

Characters could also react to a player's emotional cues.

In horror-themed games, enemies could intelligently select the perfect time to startle a player based on how they feel, rather than having opponents in the same positions every time a mission is reloaded.

But the most powerful aspect of the EPOC is its ability to detect thoughts. Players can just think about performing actions, such as lifting or pushing objects or making them disappear, and have the game act accordingly without the need to push any keys or buttons.

All of these features have been publicly demonstrated to thousands at gaming conferences using a role playing game developed by Emotiv. It will be included for free with the headset and was trialled in Sydney by smh.com.au.

Do, who came to Australia from Vietnam in 1995 on a university scholarship, said his intention was not to replace the keyboard or traditional game controller; he simple wanted to add another layer to the experience.

"You can still move around using your joystick, using your keypad, using your mouse and keyboard, just like a normal game, but there is a lot of activity that we take to another level by adding a headset - such as being able to levitate an object by thinking about it," he said.

Do said the company was first concentrating on the larger US market - which has about 9 million hardcore gamers - but was working with Australian resellers and distributors to launch the product here.

Regardless, Australians would be able to order the headset online from US retailers or from Emotiv itself.

"We're working very hard to get the headset to other markets at least by online ordering," Do said.

He said that, while the company was initially focused on gaming, the technology had applications in any situations where humans interacted with machines, such as in medicine and robotics. Further, market research companies and even Hollywood studios were tapping Emotiv's technology to measure reactions from focus groups.

Emotiv spent two years developing its technology in Sydney before moving its headquarters to San Francisco, the home of Silicon Valley, in 2005. It employs about 50 staff - neurologists, biomedical scientists, mathematicians, engineers - but its entire research team is still based in Sydney.

Moving to the US, Do said, meant Emotiv was "closer to all the action, all the [big gaming] companies, all the clients and also access to money, because, as a start-up company, money is always one of the key considerations".

He said Emotiv had been approached by numerous suitors keen to acquire the company, but wanted to first see how far the technology could grow. Emotiv has also had meetings with the major game console makers about licensing the technology to them for future products.

In addition to Do, Emotiv was founded by 1998 Young Australian of the Year Tan Le; Neil Weste, a neuroscientist who sold his chip manufacturing company Radiata Communications to Cisco in 2000 for $US295 million; and Allan Snyder, the director of the University of Sydney's Centre for the Mind and winner of the 2001 Marconi Prize.

The four founders self-funded the initial $1 million needed to start the company but have since raised $US14.5 million in series A funding. It is now in the process of raising series B funding.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Feeding time...

feeding time

The latest craze here is to have little fish eat the dead skin off your feet. Haven't tried it yet, but I might, I really might.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Iron Man Rocks!

I was expecting a lot from this movie, it's been my must-see movie since I first saw the trailer but I had started to prepare myself for disappointment.

I began saying things like
'the first movie in a super-hero franchise is always a bit slow as they have so much backstory to cover', because I was worried that I was expecting more than one movie could deliver.

I went to see Iron Man on Thursday night, and I tells ya, all my worry was unnecessary, because this movie is great.

Now I'm a bit of a tech-geek as I'm sure you've probably already gathered by now, so for me, the workshop scenes with Tony Stark testing and refining the different versions of the suit were a very worthwhile addition. Maybe not so much for everyone, but I liked it. Felt that it added depth to the storyline. I really don't like those whizz-bang movie scripts that gloss over everything and don't give the geeks in the audience a bit of substance to chew on ;).

Here, we get to see some of the nuts & bolts (obviously literally in this case), we get to see things fail, which for me adds realism (as much as can be expected in a super-hero movie), as you see that it's a suit that he actually builds and needs to test, not just something that he puts on that works perfectly first time.

The workshop is also the main location of the other surprise of this film.
It's funny. From the bickering between Tony Stark and Jarvis, his AI 'butler', to the visual gags of the initial suit testing, Robert Downey Jr, as usual, presents himself as an actor with a fantastic sense of comedic timing.

Jeff Bridges does a good job as the sleazy, overbearing, double-crossing business partner, and Gwyneth Paltrow does nicely as Pepper Potts, Tony's secretary, though the role doesn't really leave her much room to shine.

Iron man is the best super-hero movie I have seen, is showing now, so go see it if you think there is even the slightest chance you'll like it.

I'll rate Iron Man 9/10

oh.. And stay after the credits ;)

Friday, May 02, 2008

'Pig powder' regrows man's fingertip

An Ohio man has regrown a finger thanks to a medical miracle that doctors hope will enable patients to regenerate burnt skin and damaged organs, revolutionizing the way the body heals itself.

When Lee Spievack, a hobby-store salesman in Cincinnati, slashed off the tip of his finger with a model-plane propeller, the missing piece vanished along with any reasonable hope of his hand being whole again.

In a cutting-edge medical technique that seems ripped from the pages of science fiction, a powdery substance helped the 69-year-old regrow a fully functional digit with tissue, nerves, skin, nail, and a fingerprint.

Spievack had been helping a customer one evening in August 2005 with an engine on a model airplane behind the shop. He knew the motor was risky because it required somebody to turn the prop backwards to make it run the right way.

"I pointed to it," Spievack recalled the other day, "and said, 'You need to get rid of this engine, it's too dangerous.' And I put my finger through the prop."

He misjudged the distance to the spinning plastic blade. It sliced off his fingertip, leaving just a bit of the nail bed. The missing piece, three-eighths of an inch long, was never found.

An emergency room doctor wrapped up the rest of his finger and sent him to a hand surgeon, who recommended a skin graft to cover what was left of his finger. What was gone, it appeared, was gone forever.

If Spievack had been a toddler, things might have been different. Up to about age two, people can consistently regrow fingertips, says Dr. Stephen Badylak, a regeneration expert at the University of Pittsburgh. But that's rare in adults, he said.

Spievack, however, did have a major advantage - a brother, Alan, a former Harvard surgeon who'd founded a company called ACell Inc., that makes an extract of pig bladder for promoting healing and tissue regeneration.

It helps horses regrow ligaments, for example, and the federal government has given clearance to market it for use in people. Similar formulations have been used in many people to do things like treat ulcers and other wounds and help make cartilage.

The summer before Lee Spievack's accident, Dr. Alan Spievack had used it on a neighbor who'd cut his fingertip off on a tablesaw. The man's fingertip grew back over four to six weeks, Alan Spievack said.

Lee Spievack took his brother's advice to forget about a skin graft and try the pig powder.

Soon a shipment of the stuff arrived and Lee Spievack started applying it every two days. Within four weeks his finger had regained its original length, he says, and in four months "it looked like my normal finger."

Spievack said it's a little hard, as if calloused, and there's a slight scar on the end. The nail continues to grow at twice the speed of his other nails.

"All my fingers in this cold weather have cracked except that one," he said.

All in all, he said, "I'm quite impressed."

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