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    The Computer's First Song

    The 1956 composition "Illiac Suite for String Quartet" is a pleasant enough sounding piece of music – for the first three movements, that is. It's when you get to the fourth and final movement, that things get...weird. The notes sound random and dissonant. It doesn't sound much like music at all. But the peculiarity of "Illiac Suite" makes a little more sense when you realize how it was composed. This was the computer's first algorithmically generated song.

    Programmed in binary by Lejaren A. Hiller, assistant professor of music at the University of Illinois, and Leonard M. Isaacson, a former research associate on the school's Illiac computer, "Illiac Suite" was nevertheless a revelation. That a computer might one day compose music indistinguishable from that of a human artist became an irresistible pop culture trope – for better and for ill. In his New York Times obituary, Hiller is said to have joked that "he would have computers compose all possible rock songs, then copyright them and refuse to let anyone perform them."

    Luckily for us, computers are nowhere close to realizing that humorous albeit dystopian vision. And yet "Illiac Suite" remains an impressive feat, even today.

    Photo credit: University of Illinois

    We can actually trace the beginnings of "Illiac Suite" back to none other than the British mathematician and computing pioneer Alan Turing. In 1951, Turing published a book on programming for an early computer known then as the Ferranti Mark I*. The machine had a loudspeaker, sometimes called a "hooter," that was used primarily to issue warnings or during debugging. But Turing found that the loudspeaker could also be used to produce solid tones – notes, if you prefer.

    It didn't take long before programmers began to exploit this functionality to playback simply melodies and songs. But two programmers by the name of David Caplin and Dietrich Prinz decided to take things a step further.

    In Brief: The First Conversational Robot

    Last month, Robohub posted a story about the first commercial toy that could respond to voice commands. Radio Rex, a toy dog that jumped out of a doghouse when called, was made and sold in 1922, decades before the first digital computers. Apparently, surviving models of Radio Rex still work today. Rex worked off of acoustic energy: a spring attached to the toy dog released when struck by 500Hz audio--roughly the "eh" vowel sound in the dog's name. The appeal of Rex resonates today, in our interactions with computers and robotics. Social robotics, pioneered by researchers like MIT's Cynthia Brezeal, is the next phase in human-computer interaction. It's why devices like the upcoming Jibo are so fascinating; roboticists believe that the humanizing of technology will forever change our relationship with it.

    Norman
    The Best Cheap Printer Today

    Color is swell, but for most documents, black and white look just fine. Monochrome laser printers and avoid the waste and hassle of inkjet machines (no cleaning purges!), the cost and bulk of color laser (only one toner cartridge!), and still churn out a couple dozen pages per minute with razor-sharp text. For students, small-office denizens, or anyone with modest printing needs, the Samsung Xpress M2835DW is the most efficient way to make hard copies of term papers, tax forms, or any other documents that look great in grayscale.

    I spent more than 20 hours researching the mono laser category, looking over dozens of expert reviews and hundreds of user testimonials for the best, most affordable black-and-white printers. Meanwhile, Wirecutter researcher Audrey Lorberfeld spent another 32 hours analyzing existing professional printer reviews and comparing them to user reviews to identify how we could improve upon them with our own testing. With her findings in mind, I’ve spent 23 total hours testing a handful of the top contenders, jumping through hoops to set them up on a smorgasbord of devices and operating systems and printing stacks of monochrome documents to measure speed and print quality.

    Like any worthwhile laser printer, the M2835DW spits out crisp text fast and at a wicked low cost per page.

    Like any worthwhile laser printer, the M2835DW spits out crisp text fast and at a wicked low cost per page. It’s affordable to buy, yet still includes cost- and time-saving features like automatic two-sided printing and wireless networking, which are often missing from some pricier models. And for what it’s worth, it’s the candidate least likely to send you into fits of rage, Office Space-style, during setup.

    Google Play App Roundup: Bamboo Paper, Wayward Souls, and Madefire

    Get ready to fire up the Play Store and load up some new apps and games, because it's time once again for the Google Play App Roundup. This is where you can come each and every week to find out what's cool and new on Android. Just hit the links to open the Play Store on your device.

    This week you can take notes and doodle in a new way, go on a quest that is sure to end in death, and experience comics in a whole new way.

    Bamboo Paper

    Wacom released the "memo" version of Bamboo paper for phones a few months ago, but now Android tablet users have access to the real deal. Bamboo Paper is a notebook app that lets you take notes, sketch, or just get your thoughts down on (virtual) paper quickly. The interface is designed for tablets, so it won't install on phones. If you check out Bamboo Paper now, you can get all the features for free too.

    The home screen in Bamboo Paper is just a scrollable list of your notebooks. You can change the colors, paper types, and names of each one. The notebook theme is carrier through the rest of the app, but it's not overbearing. I suppose I'd say Paper uses skeuomorphism to an acceptable degree--it never gets too out of hand.

    The notebooks work like, well... notebooks. You can swipe in from the edges to navigate between pages and choose if you want plain, lined, graph or dotted paper. A real notebook certainly doesn't have a menu bar at the top like the app does. This is where you choose the brush type, line thickness, and color. These are "brushes" in the technical sense, but they're mostly for writing and doodling. You won't find any advanced Photoshop-style brushes, but that's not really what Paper is all about.

    The menu bar also has controls for undo/redo, sharing, eraser, and image importing. Images are actually quite cool in Paper. You can pull in pictures from any service that has registered itself correctly with the OS. That means all your gallery apps, file managers, and the camera app should be there as options. You can paste these images into a notebook however you like by resizing, moving, and tilting with a multitouch gesture.

    You can use Bamboo Paper with a regular capacitive stylus or one of the ten capacitive styluses that are attached to your hand, but Wacom's Bamboo-branded styluses are the best way to do it. These devices connect to the tablet via Bluetooth and provide pressure-sensitive input and allows the app to ignore other inputs, like your palm resting on the screen. They're neat tools, but you'll pay $20-80 for the good ones. Anyone with a Galaxy Note tablet will be able to take advantage of some of that same functionality without buying a new stylus, though Wacom will sell special versions that offer an improved Paper experience on those devices as well.

    If you download Bamboo Paper now, you'll get all the tools for free. The iOS version sells most of the brushes and features as in-app add-ons. These will be added to the Android app later, but you can keep all of them on your device permanently as long as you act quickly.

    So, We Had a Little Comic-Con Party...

    To the Tested community members, new community members, and to all of the makers in general who were at our party last night at Comic-Con.

    Thank you.

    For those who might not be at the Con this year, Tested, AOL, our sister site Mandatory, and I threw a party for a few hundred people in San Diego, featuring about a dozen of my costumes and constructions on display, along with work we've commissioned for Tested. We called it Incognito.

    I think it was a pretty good party.

    I had an awesome time. I've never had that many of my costumes on display all in one place like that and seeing them together was amazing. I've had many of them set up in my Cave, to be sure, but not like this and not for hundreds of people to appreciate at once. It was real, to see how much time and energy and love and obsession each represented to my past. I have deep and fond memories of every problem solved, every hurdle jumped, and it was lovely to share that with people who were able to attend.

    The best part about hosting a Comic-Con party is that I get to see so many of my favorite people all at once. That's pretty much the purpose of any party, right?

    I got to talk to dozens of makers of every stripe, skill level, and inclination. In addition to my friends and loved ones, we opened the party up early to Tested Premium members and anyone who was in San Diego last night--cosplayers and makers and tinkerers. I took a lot of pictures with a lot of people last night, and I tried to talk to as many people as I could.

    The sheer breadth of experience, enthusiasm, diversity, passion, and talent I encountered among the crowd was stunning. Humbling. Thrilling. I heard stories of tiny shops in the corner of apartments. Of projects tackled, difficulties overcome, and obsessions indulged. My favorite kind of conversations. Over and over attendees told me about their work, their lives, and their tools and materials.

    I found every interaction inspiring. Everyone in the room shared interests, and I caught some wonderful meeting-of-the-mind moments, where people were trading their hard-earned lessons. It felt that the broad community of Comic-Con was well represented at our shindig. And I'm grateful to be a part of that community.

    Thank you.

    MakerBot Mystery Build: Typeset

    Just because we're at Comic-Con doesn't mean that our 3D printer gets a week off! It's time for another mystery build with our MakerBot, and this week's build is something for typography nerds. Place your best guess as to what's being printed in the comments below!

    How To Shop for a Home 3D Printer

    3D printing's popularity continues to grow and more people are taking the plunge into this new consumer technology. With Will and Norm having built a Printrbot Simple for us, I thought it would be a good time to talk about buying your own printer. There are a many choices out there and it can be a lot of confusing misinformation which overwhelms you. It's not possible to cover all the printers out there, so we'll cover the basics and things to consider when buying a printer and places to look for information.

    The Basics

    As a refresher, let's walk through the fundamentals of a typical home 3D printer. Most are going to be Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) machines that use plastic filament pushed through a heated extruder which 'draws' onto a print bed, layer by layer until the model is finished. Many machines print with Polylactic Acid (PLA), a biodegradable, non-toxic plastic that produces nice, but semi-brittle prints. The other common plastic is Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)--the same stuff LEGO is made from. ABS is a little trickier to print with and does produce some fumes but it's also more flexible and durable than PLA.

    A higher-end choice but still in the realm of home printers are some SLA (Stereolithography) and DLP (Digital Light Processing) machines which print with liquid resin which is cured with light. They produce highly detailed prints but tend to cost more for both the printer and materials and we'll cover those in a later article.

    Tested: Overcast Podcast App for iOS

    I've spent the last week testing Overcast, a new podcast player from Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper. I spend most of my time in the car listening to podcasts, but I've never found a client that worked exactly as I expect. While there are several apps out there that should provide what I want in a podcast player--a constantly updated list of the shows I listen to, downloaded when I'm on Wi-Fi, and ready to play whenever I hop in the car or hit the play button on my earbuds--every client I've tested has had problems.

    In my week of testing, Overcast hasn't had any of the issues I've come to expect from my other podcast players. Whenever I press play in my car or on my earbuds, the last show I was listening to starts playing. When a new version of one of the shows I subscribe to is uploaded, the app downloads it automatically so it's waiting when I want to listen. And once I created an Overcast account (the process is free and took about 15 seconds), my podcast subscriptions and current progress in each episode were synced automatically between my phone, iPad, and the rudimentary web client at http://overcast.fm.

    The dynamic playlists are the real heroes of Overcast. The playlists collect the most recent or In addition to all the sorting options that are common to many podcasting apps, when you create a new playlist, you can choose which shows to include (or which of the shows you're subscribed to exclude) and note that a subset of those shows are priority shows. When you play the playlist, it plays episodes you've listed from priority podcasts first, then keeps going down the list of podcasts that are part of that playlist, until a new priority episode hits. Many podcast apps include similar features, but this is the first one I've used that consistently worked the way I expected.

    The app is brand new, and has a handful of rough edges. I'd love to be able to set my own defaults for the per-podcast episode retention and notification settings. It's a hassle to have to open settings and adjust the retention from 3 to 1 and turn notifications off for every show I subscribe to. I also encountered some inconsistent behavior when setting shows to be included or excluded from playlists. It took a few times for my changes to stick.

    Overcast is free, with a single $4.99 in-app purchase to unlock a handful of advanced features: variable speed playback, voice compression for shows with audio issues, and a nifty feature that shortens shows by removing some of those pregnant pauses. There aren't any ads, but you do need to sign up for a free account if you want syncing to work. If you give Overcast access to your Twitter account, it will pull recommendations for new shows to listen to from your feed. The free version of Overcast is already the best podcast client I've used for iOS and it's well worth the $5 if you want any of the additional features or just want to support people who make great software.

    Hands-On with Nvidia's Shield Tablet

    Nvidia's first Shield was a dedicated gaming handheld, but its new model is a high-end tablet with gaming accessories. We spend a little time with Nvidia's new Android gaming tablet, compare it to the original Shield portable, and give our thoughts on this device's appeal to PC and mobile gamers.

    The Best Blu-ray Player Today

    After spending almost 20 hours with the best new Blu-ray players for 2014, the $90 LG BP540 came out on top after our previous pick was discontinued. The LG fits our criteria for a good player thanks to integrated Wi-Fi and the most popular streaming apps. More importantly, it has a better interface and video quality than the competition and offers the best combination of price and performance of those we looked at.

    Who am I to make that claim? I’ve been handling almost all the Blu-ray reviews for Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity since 2010 and have had nearly three dozen players come through my hands. I’ve subjected them to countless objective and subjective tests. I’ve even thrown them on a $15,000 HDMI Analyzer to verify their performance. Often, as is the case with the LG, the picture from a cheap player is 100 percent identical to an $8,000 player’s.

    If the LG BP540 sells out, the $90 Sony BDP-S3200 is our runner-up choice that is almost as good. The menu system is more confusing than our top pick’s and the overall interface leaves a lot to be desired, but it offers a wide selection of streaming content, and Blu-ray content does very well. Be warned, though: The Sony shows some jaggies while watching DVD content with diagonal lines.

    With more expensive players, you’re usually paying for better CD playback quality or niche features. Along those lines, and if you also want the absolute best in audio and video quality, the $600 Oppo BDP-103D is the best high-end player you can buy. It has better DVD scaling than any other tested player, performs flawlessly even with foreign content and weird frame rates, and supports all audio formats as well. The integrated Darbee video processing is a favorite of most reviewers, including video purists, and Oppo has better service and support than other companies. For most people, though, the price difference isn’t justified.

    Our pick from 2013, the Sony BDP-S5100, would still be our recommended pick if it were still being manufactured.

    If you only want Blu-ray playback and don’t care about streaming whatsoever, the Samsung BD-H5100 is our step-down choice at $63. It does fine with Blu-ray content and the lack of Wi-Fi saves you some money, though it also means you’ll have to perform firmware updates manually or have hardwired Ethernet to do so. You’ll want to have updated firmware since it may affect your ability to play newer Blu-ray discs in the future.

    Our pick from 2013, the Sony BDP-S5100, would still be our recommended pick if it were still being manufactured, but alas, it is not. It was less expensive than the LG, had the same streaming options, and loaded discs faster. If you bought our pick from last year, or you happen to find it somewhere on closeout, there is no real need to upgrade.

    How To Build a Life-Size Dragon

    Norm's note: Frank first showed us his Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate dragon sculpt before this year's E3. Frank has since written up his build, which we wanted to share ahead of this week's Comic-Con--where the Gore Magala creature will be on display at the Capcom booth.

    I love video games and video game culture, and last year was stoked to be asked to be a part of a team doing the Zombie makeups for Capcom's Dead Rising 3 booth at E3. It was there that I befriended the creative services team in charge of all of these cool trade show events and displays. Jump ahead to a few months ago, when I received a call from the team lead at Capcom to bid on the making of a display sculpture for one of their upcoming games: Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate!

    The concept was to have a 20-foot tall backdrop with a huge image of one of the game’s monsters, and have the front third of it coming out of the backdrop. Big is sort of an understatement here; once I did some quick math to put it into scale, the sculpture I would have to create would be almost 8 feet tall, 14 feet wide, and 12 feet long. To bid on something of this size is really tough. Most trade show displays are carved or milled out of bead foam and then hard coated, which leaves very little finished detail. But this monster has a lot of detail. So I had to figure a solution that could provide that kind of detail while keeping costs reasonable. After that came an engineering problem: how would this thing support itself? Additionally, it has to be transported to multiple venues and be durable enough for the public to interact with. So it also needed to come apart. Not easy!

    After some back-and-forth details of the deliverables and specifications, and some careful planning and budgeting, I was awarded the job, which would be guilt in my newly expanded shop. Here is what my team and I came up with for the design of this build.

    Karakuri Puppets, Japan's Automata

    "Japans modern day robots can be traced back to the Karakuri. Today Hideki Higashino is one of the few remaining craftsmen who is determined to keep the history and tradition of Japanese Karakuri alive." This past Saturday, production house Bot & Dolly hosted the fourth annual Robot Film Festival in San Francisco (MCed by friend of Tested Veronica Belmont). It was a celebration of films starring and documenting our fascination with robots, with showings of short films and the 2005 Japanese science fiction film Hinokio. The film festival has made past entries available online, and 2013's films--including the one above on Japanese Karakuri--are just wonderful. I especially like that there's a category for Best Human as Robot Actor.

    Scratch Testing an Alleged iPhone 6 Screen

    YouTube tech reviewer Marques Brownlee (MKBHD) recently posted two videos with what he claims is the front panel of Apple's as yet unannounced iPhone 6. The panel was supplied to him by Sonny Dickson, an Australian who has a history of procuring prototype phone components from suppliers in China. In Brownlee's testing, he found that the screen was much more scratch resistant than the iPhone 5S', using two different types of sandpaper. The alleged 4.7-inch iPhone screen was not impervious to damage, though, which Brownlee attributes to it being a sapphire-glass composite as opposed to being pure sapphire, like the iPhone 5S Touch ID/home button.

    Google Play App Roundup: Notific, Fish Out of Water, and Magic 2015

    Time to check in on what's new in the Play Store. This is the Google Play App Roundup where you can come every week to find out what's new and cool on Android. Just hit the links below to head right to the Play Store on your device. This week there's another way to check your notifications, a game with fish, and a king of collectible card games is back.

    Notific

    Developers have really embraced Android's notification listener service in the last year, and Notific is yet another app that takes advantage of it to make your notifications a little more accessible. Notific will wake your display and let you manage incoming notifications without unlocking the device. This app borrows a bit from the Moto X's Active Display system in implementation, though not so much in actual appearance.

    If you've used an app like Peek or DynamicDisplay, you'll get the basic gist of Notific. After installing you need to enable the notification service and grant admin access so the app can shut your screen off after the appropriate length of time. By default, Notific reproduces all the high-priority notifications on your device (i.e. those with icons in the status bar) and wakes the screen. The full version also has a blacklist for apps you don't want to show up in Notific's management interface. There's also a whitelist mode that only produces notifications from the apps you select -- this is probably the best way to go if you have a lot of apps intsalled.

    Notific isn't quite as minimalist as most of the other implementations of this idea, but that might be okay for some users. It actually replications almost all the UI from the standard Android notification including buttons and full text previews. When the screen is woken up, you have the opportunity to deal not only with the new notification, but any others that might be waiting for you. you can swipe between notifications and dismiss, open, or use one of the action buttons. The lock icon at the bottom is used to either open or dismiss each notification individually.

    The default behavior is to have your homescreen background up behind the notification UI, but that can be changed. There's even an option in the newest version to change it to all black, which is better for AMOLED screens. For everyone else, the brightness of the background is adjustable.

    If you're on Android 4.4, Notific supports immersive mode and an "Android Wear" theme that (I think) looks much more modern than the standard Holo Dark theme. It separates the selection slider from the notification card and basically has a much more open design.

    I've been using DynamicNotifications for a number of months on several devices, but I find myself rather content with Notific. It has all the necessary options and the new theme is great. It's a bargain at $0.99 and there's even a trial on XDA.

    Show and Tell: Favorite Slim Wallet

    For this week's Show and Tell, Will shares his pick for his favorite slim wallet. The Bellroy Card Sleeve wallet keeps his pocket bulk to a minimum, and the leather has aged well over the two months Will has been testing it. Are you someone who keeps your wallet in the back or front pocket?

    MakerBot Mystery Build: New Studs

    It's time for this week's edition of Print the Mystery Object! This week's print is for a wearable accessory that's a twist on a familiar object. Place your best guess as to what's being printed in the comments!

    Tested Builds: $540 3D Printer, Part 5

    Our build of the Printrbot Simple 3D printer is finally complete! Time to calibrate it and set it up for a first print. Will and Norm go over the software, load up a model, cross fingers, and test the new printer! Thanks for joining us this week through our build, and hope you learned something about 3D printers along the way. (This video was brought to you by Premium memberships on Tested. Learn more about how you can support us with memberships!)

    Jibo Puts a Friendly Face on Home Robotics

    We're pretty excited for this product. Jibo is a new robot developed by MIT Media Lab's Cynthia Breazeal, a roboticist on the forefront of social robotics research. (Here's a great TED talk she did on the rise of personal robots in 2010.) Breazeal is now taking that research into the marketplace, with a robot that she wants to be suitable for the home. At its core, it's a connected digital assistant that performs many of the same actions as a smartphone, like checking email, playing music, and making VOIP calls. But its also very expressive--the robot's three-axes of motorized rotation brings it to life, and lets it do things like track your voice or movement to take photos or communicate. There's a lot of Chumby, Romo, and Keepon here, in a design that evokes Wall-E's Eve robot (minus the anti-gravity hovering). Jibo is launching as an Indiegogo project today, with a $500 contribution securing a unit for delivery by the end of 2015. IEEE Spectrum has more details and an interview with Breazeal about Jibo here.

    In Brief: The Invention of the Modern Bathroom

    Lloyd Alter, the editor of Treehugger, wrote this insightful feature about the history and design of the typical household bathroom. It traces the origins of the modern plumbing system that weaves through our cities, and explains why the many design defects of the current standard bathroom setup. For one, ergonomics is poor--toilets are too tall for a comfortable squat--and sinks are too low. But more importantly, the modern bathroom is extremely wasteful. Alter suggests alternatives like composting systems that split off greywater from blackwater, and a shower setup that only dispenses water when you need it. Of course, this doesn't take into consideration the other activities that currently happen in many bathrooms; the water closet is now a place where many people get their work done. Smartphones and tablets in the bathroom are still gross, by the way.

    Norman