Sunday Dec 19, 2004

Getting the Internet on a hand-held device

One of those seemingly incredible predictions is that we will be able to store the contents of the Internet on a hand-held device in about 20 years. That kind of storage would require incredible bandwidth, data indexing and synchronisation capability. So there are two further steps towards that dream:

Technology advances so fast, if you don't keep up you get left so far behind what is possible. Combine this kind of storage and bandwidth in a hand-held device, add a fast CPU and bus, mix in short-range wireless communication, and you've got an astonishing opportunity to create software and services that no-one has ever seen before. Just imagine it; you'll be able to do a lot more than jot a few notes, save some contacts and track your tasks on that class of PDA.

Saturday Dec 18, 2004

'Artificial' Life - Potential Bio Upgrade?

The BBC article 'Artificial life' comes step closer describes how scientists at the Rockefeller University have "created" a cell using soft cell walls made of fat molecules taken from egg white, while the cell contents are an extract of the common gut bug E. coli with its genetic material replaced. The cell fluid makes a flourescent kind of protein.

Ok, so here's a wild idea - would it be possible to make an artificial human organ comprising a collection of such artificial cells which could create the 20 amino acids? This would mean we could be less dependent on certain types of food sources which provide vitamins that are normally an essential part of our diet. This could in turn enable life in less habitable conditions (such as in a long running space mission) .

My wild ideas aside, it's clear that techniques like nano-needles make this kind of manipulation (or creation) of living cells easier, including the possibility to alter stem cells to control their function and operation as progenitor cells, allowing the creation of different kinds of specific cells.

All of this reminds me of Voltaire's comment: if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him; what (or perhaps who) will we be able to invent tomorrow?

Bad Science Is Good For Us (Not)

Seth Godin has started a list of 1000 things everyone should know; item 26 is "How to read the media for spin and for insight"; after reading his other blog, I think Seth needs to read Michael Crichton's Caltech Michelin lecture again with this in mind.

In this lecture, Crichton critically attacks concepts such as the Drake Equation (a series of (mostly) unknowns which compute the likelihood of alien life) and Nuclear Winter (where a suspension of material in the atmosphere blocks light reaching the Earth's surface) as part of a litany of scientific "errors". But the punchline comes when Crichton finally talks about Global Warming, leaving the reader in no doubt that it will similarly be revealed as pseudo-science. However Crichton does not discuss any specific counter-evidence; he simply alludes to similarities in the growth of belief in global warming to that in the nuclear winter scenario. And when you view this part in the context of the lecture's title "Aliens Cause Global Warming", the whole thing comes across as a sponsored frame, and quite a good one at that.

Crichton ends the talk with a suggestion that scientists attempt to disprove scientific experiments or theories, in a manner which is similar to the practice of quality assurance in software development where engineers look for faults or flaws in software before it is released. This thought is so common-sensible (but so meaningless since for the most part this is already how scientists work) that I have to wonder why this kind of talk was permitted at Caltech. It's actually a shame that the practice of quality assurance does not apply to lectures by high profile authors of pseudo-scientific novels. Disclosure? Nope, zero cool.

Meanwhile the debate and analysis of global warming rages on, but it seems to me that only the pro-warming scientists offer credible evidence.

Sunday Dec 12, 2004

Tablets or Desktops?

I haven't yet seen let alone used a tablet PC but I know I want one; PDA's offer so many new usage opportunities but their limited screen size, slower CPU and lack of a hard disk or keyboard makes them inflexible. A full-on PDA or tablet-format desktop is the best of both worlds. My ideal tablet would run Mac OS or JDS and have a 1200x1024 resolution with a fairly decent compact keyboard.

An enthusiast has published details on an iBook hardware hack that lets Mac users get the tablet experience.

If I peer a little deeper in the crystal ball, my ideal PDA/desktop would also be Sun Ray capable, able to use both WiFi and 3G data, and provide offline file, mail and calendar sync capabilites. Not to mention that it would make a really powerful remote control for a home entertainment system. Kill-er.

Friday Dec 10, 2004

A Child-safe Internet

It's tough for parents today; the internet has so much to offer children, but also a lot of adult and inappropriate content.

However the European Union is providing 60m Euro in funding to provide parents and teachers with tools to keep their children safe while on the internet. It's likely that these tools will be based on open-source, so they will be usable world-wide.

It's already possible to use free tools to do this today, but it's not yet easy enough. The key terms that you encounter with web or mail filtering are whitelist and blacklist; a whitelist or YES-list is a list of good sites/addresses that are allowed through, a blacklist or NO-list is a list of known bad sites. If you want the safest solution, you can use a whitelist and prevent anything that is not on that list from coming through. A blacklist is typically only useful if you subscribe to an update service (similar to virus protection); even with regular updates they can never be entirely safe, so I don't recommend them. It is also possible to use filters that look for keywords in the address name or in the content; if your list of keywords is long enough, this is far safer.

Here are some specific tools you might like to take a closer look at:

  • A web proxy such as the popular Squid can stop inappropriate content as well as caching content for faster access; DansGuardian is far easier to use and supports keyword-based filters
  • For blocking spam and adult mail, Postfix is an advanced mail-processing program similar to the popular sendmail; it supports a variety of techniques for stopping inappropriate mail or spam; for example, see this Newsforge article which uses a Postfix after content filter

Most free tools work best on UNIX-based systems such as Linux and Solaris. If your children use Windows, you can setup a separate machine to act as an internet gateway.

But if you're not interested in technology, there are several good sites where you can get more advice; the Filtering Software site contains reviews of several easy-to-use packages, and Phil Bradleys's Child Safe Internet has a host of links and useful information.

Thursday Dec 09, 2004

Sun Ray - Thin Clients at the Speed of Light

It's great to see Sun Ray now available for broadband. Folks who know SunRay thin clients tend to like their instant boot, solid state electronics (no moving parts, no disks), silence (a room full of Sun Rays is eerily quiet, nice if you're in a shared office, a call centre or a library), cool-ness (use minimal power, generate negligible heat) and their statelessness (if anyone steals a Sun Ray, they take no data; the flip side is that you can walk from one Sun Ray to another and instantly get back your desktop session by just inserting a card - check out our Mary packing her "laptop" - that's right, that little card is all she needs to access her desktop).

But now you can get all that, and take your Sun Ray home or on the road. Secure, low-cost, centrally managed computing and storage - simplicity itself. You might not believe it until you've seen it, and once you've seen it, you may not want to go back to managing your own desktop.

As someone who just last week had the distinct non-pleasure of trying to retrieve all the data I could from my laptop hard drive (ok tell me, who actually manages to do backup often enough that they don't lose some data? ;), not to mention fighting spyware from the time I used Internet Explorer on Windows, I'm seriously considering switching to SunRay full time; life really is too short to fight the problems of a thick client laptop.

Update: mere minutes after posting this earlier, a fellow Sun blogger Paul Rogers has another tale of woe about a laptop. And they can affect fertility too? ;)

Wednesday Dec 08, 2004

Halo 2 is a network hog

Some folks interpret the Halo 2 network demands as evidence that we need to invest in networks or charge service users by bandwidth. Sounds like marketese to me; Half-Life creator Valve's Steam service hosts more online users than any other, yet you don't hear Valve complaining about bandwidth. It seems more likely that the Halo 2 developers need to do a litte optimisation on their networking code.

Tuesday Dec 07, 2004

Solaris on Dell... or Lenovo

I see Jim Grisanzio had the same thought I did when I saw the tag-line that Dell were complaining to Red Hat about the price of their enterprise Linux distro.

But while Dell is urging Red Hat to reduce prices to stay competitive, Dell is also in a competition; I wonder what Lenovo will do now they've super-sized themselves?

I suspect all vendors of commodity PC's, especially servers, are considering how they can add value - and Solaris is one kick-ass differentiator. Who will get there first?

Meanwhile, customers who have been looking to Dell for low-cost x86 servers should make sure they are getting the best value and take a look at the summary of prices on Sun's server page. It's nice to see Sun offering value and transparency of prices, and of course all those servers can run Solaris 10.

Thursday Dec 02, 2004

Almost Like Being There

If you ask most people what virtual reality is, they will probably think of something like the scene in the movie Disclosure where Michael Douglas interacts with documents in a virtual filing cabinet and gets help from a guardian angel. The hallmarks of this view of virtual reality are that the user wears special hardware that translates physical body movements into direct analogues in a computer-generated environment; conversely the hardware enables the user to experience sight, sound and (limited) touch from that environment.

Another view of virtual reality comes from online gaming, which is primarily the multi-player first-person shooters and the MUDs (multi-user dimensions). The user interacts with a regular game console or desktop computer and the simulated environment supports a stylised way for users to interact (either virtual combat or "role playing").

I'd like to offer an alternative to these limited worlds which I call the Adaptive Themed World. The internet hosts a practical infinity of documents and services that use a variety of technologies and styles to convey information. It is possible to adapt this information and the interactions that the internet supports (blogging, IM, e-mail, video-conferencing, shared photos, search engines, etc.) into a form that can be experienced within a virtual world; I call this medium transcoding as it reuses and adapts information (text, audio, video, multi-media) in one medium for use in another. This is in some ways the opposite of the concept of a game avatar; instead of translating the user's appearance into a form that suits a given virtual world, an Adaptive World translates portions of the "real" internet into a form that suits a particular virtual world theme.

As far as I know, no multi-player game has offered the experience of Imperial Rome as shown in the movie Gladiator but I'll use this as an example of how an Adaptive World using such a theme would work.

Walking in the Forum, you would have an opportunity to:
  • see and hear about goods for sale from traders (as usual, advertising would in part drive the revenue that would fun a free virtual world); the goods could be spoken about, shown on wall hangings, or have in-world 3D representations (the user could choose to have the representation shown in it's literal form (say a large flatscreen television) or translated into a form that suited the world (say a painting or an animated mural))
  • listen to public speakers on a variety of issues (blogs or journals, spoken by the author's avatar, either as text or using speech-to-text translation); the avatar could be chosen by the author or by the viewing public
  • engage in debates
  • go to the temple to request help  from the 'gods' (support or intervention by game administrators)
  • play games; board games such as Calculi (checkers), Terni Lapilli (tic-tac-toe), Tabula (backgammon), Latrunculi (chess)
  • listen to music (MP3 streams that are 'played' by a in-game band of musicians) or watch a play ( video stream rendered as a 2d plane on a stage, or as a cube in a forum)
Naturally the gladiatorial arena provides plenty of opportunities for those of martial orientation, and let's not forget chariot races (regular or armed), public executions (for users who in some way break the rules). There are similar analogues for other stimulating aspects of Roman life.

The key part of an adaptive world based in part on medium transcoding is that it reuses live or static information that is available on the "regular" internet (as html or RSS or multimedia streams), but it renders it into a form that suits a specific virtual world. The rendering is in part chosen by the world designers, and in part by the user.

What is the added value of this experience? All of the users who participate in a themed virtual reality share some common interest and choose to experience the internet in this form. Even while listening to music or watching a video stream, they have a sense of doing so with other people across the world. And it has the possibility to support advertising and existing internet content, which helps to fund the virtual world, perhaps even enabling it to be completely free.

Ancient Rome may be a boring environment for many (it doesn't do much for me, though it's an interesting thought experiment). But this is just one alternative; the options are literally endless:

  • experience the Internet from within an environment based on The Matrix; the internet competes with TV and movies, so this is a way to extend the movie association; such an environment would almost certainly be free (or perhaps require a subscription that gives other value, such as DVDs at a reduced price, or t-shirts, etc.); the opportunities for in-game advertising that matches the theme of the world are absolutely huge; this benefits both users (who get a custom experience in a virtual world they choose) and advertisers (who are looking for new media to reach a market with many more entertainment options; the movie does not need a technical or science fiction feel; it could equally be a rom-com or a soap or a thriller
  • it's possible to create such environments based around any brand or image; how about a virtual bar? You can appear to have a vodka martini (shaken naturally), while at home you drink say extra-cold Guinness poured from a can, or vice-versa. Now that would add a new dimension (oops, bad pun) to chat rooms. Naturally environments should have rating schemes to give users the right content to meet their age and accessibility needs.
  • you know those games that require dance mats? you could create a virtual disco, populated in part by (licensed) avatars of musicians or movie stars or just your friends. A dance mat also has some pretty interesting potential as a "virtual reality" tool. How about online kick-boxing? This requires a more advanced mat that can extrapolate the actual move from foot direction and changes in weight distribution, and it would be seriously enhanced by wearing simple sensors on your extremeties, maybe based on short-range RFID)
  • and as for existing online games - they are just begging to made into themed environments from which to experience and share the internet
  • the transition from users coding raw HTML to using HTML-editing tools and now to application-specific tools (blogging, photo-sharing, etc.) has already happened; MSN Spaces (now in beta) offers users a limited kind of portal for sharing content (blog, photos); now, what if you as a user could create a real personal space (a building, an apartment or a cabin say, in a virtual location you choose or build), not using a complex 3D tool, but by choosing much larger building blocks, with smart theme-aware surface matching and intelligent 3D interactive objects (like a major upgrade to Oop! in Douglas Coupland's Microserfs)

But wouldn't such a virtual environment be prohibitively expensive to create for a single movie or a brand? I don't think so. The trend towards movie sequels and more importantly the increased use of digital special effects (or even completely computer-generated scenes) will provide the necessary imagery and sounds to create the online environment. All that is required is the right kind of game/environment engine, and the publishing tools to enable existing digital assets to be re-purposed in an online virtual reality. What about open spaces, created and maintained by the intelligence and enthusiasm of individuals? Wikipedia and open-source software shows that this is not just possible but inevitable.

I enjoyed Tad Williams' Otherland, but do I think virtual reality will be created by big business? In part yes, but it will belong to everybody. Welcome to the Internet, reloaded.

Medical barriers to stem cell use being removed, one by one

Several key achievements reported recently show significant progress towards the ability to use stem cells to treat illnesses, such as the recent case in South Korea where researchers enabled Hwang Mi-Soon to walk again after 20 years of paralysis.

Stem cells are "generic", capable of becoming cells with several specific functions such as nervous system progenitor cells which are in turn able to create cells which make myelin which enables nerves to transmit sense information or commands to move muscle.

It is an extraordinary privilege to live in an age where so many medical advances improve the quality of our lives; I can only hope that these advances do not fall under patent protection which limits the supply and increases cost, and that the public courage, determination and generosity of sufferers like Christopher Reeve inspires open solutions that benefit all of us.

Thursday Nov 25, 2004

Even better than the real thing?

Today we accept that computer games like Enter the Matrix interleave segments of video footage into the regular 3D game-engine action assisted by body actors whose role is only to provide movement information so that virtual characters appear life-like. Popular movies like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and The Animatrix use computer rendering, with movement also partly mimed by body actors. And William Gibson's book Pattern Recognition has a believable character who composes movies of extraordinary beauty by editing existing movie fragments.

But now we are beginning to see another leap as second-generation games like The Sims 2 and Half Life 2 offer an even more intriguing possibility - to create movies using entirely virtual actors and sets on everyday desktop PCs.

Anyone who has seen footage of the characters in Half Life 2 is impressed by the range of emotion that is possible by moving up to 40 distinct segments of the face; compared to say Roger Moore's upwardly mobile eyebrow or the woozy contemplations of Brad Pitt (or indeed the repeated images of adaptable but often type-cast actors) this is a comparative revelation in acting.

So what next? I think tomorrow's actors and actresses won't need to work for a living, or at least not for long; they will simply license a virtual image of their face or movements to "studios" (the good ones will be able to license their image not just as an eternal 25 year old but at different ages, which may (but probably won't) reduce their use of cosmetic surgery). And of course, studios won't have a huge cast of cameramen and technicians and boom operators, and they certainly won't use film; they will probably consist of one all-powerful director who will license libraries of images, sounds, 3D maps of places (real or imaginary) and actors (also real or imaginary); they will use physics engines and image processors and "emote-engines" to create entirely virtual movies. All on a desktop PC.

This is clearly going to result in a lot of new movies, most of which will be terrible but some will be incredible and would never reach the (virtual) light of day with today's movie budgets.

So aside from an abundance of choice, what's in it for the consumer? Again, a lot. You won't just watch movies, you will be able to switch to any perspective; change hair-styles or clothes; choose a different music soundtrack; co-script them; in effect, you will be able to participate in the creation of a completely personal and unique entertainment.

Will actors make more money or less? Probably a lot less; it will be too easy to digitally modify digital faces and virtual bone structure so that they cease to be recognisable. But I think there will be a greater interest in the unusual faces; a Humphrey Bogart or a William H. Macy may be more successful than the generically beautiful.

But we may also look back at 20th century cinema as a golden age when actors and sets were real, and the capsule experience of a live play performance will also compete well against the virtual. Using an image from The Matrix - will you choose the red pill or the blue pill? Looks like you will have both.

Inside the mind of a Britney Spears searcher

I don't get it; I have difficult even spelling Britney Spears let alone recalling any of her songs, but somehow that doesn't seem to prevent her name being a recurring search topic across 70% of monitored countries in the Google Zeitgeist.

But the Zeitgeist analysis is peanuts to what Nova Spivack wants to achieve. In his Physics of Ideas (yes another changethis manifesto; some very good reading matter here folks), Spivak proposes to examine memes (and their movement and velocity) in the same way as we analyse particles. He believes a deeper analysis of web and RSS content will reveal how "big ideas" are transmitted, stored and how they change in importance. Very interesting, but how could that information be used? Spivak suggests that it may be possible to correlate meme size and velocity with other sources of information such as stock price or demographics to help with stock purchases, market research, electioneering, even terrorist activity.

It's interesting to think about that "public" data being correlated with "private" data like regional product sales or telephone calls or house prices or weather patterns. Clearly a firm that could offer this kind of data and (more importantly) analysis is in a position to charge more than say Google charges today for targetted advertising. Taking this technology to its logical conclusion, it may be possible to track a meme back to it's origin (person, place or technology). Knowing the origin makes it possible to identify and either punish or reward the people or the mechanisms that are the sources of certain kinds of meme.

So continuing on the slightly 1984-ish theme of my entries for today, this means that the folks who play their parts in framing or starting or a trend - the little firestarters - those folks can look forward to micro-payments for pushing brands or propoganda, while the real data mines and miners (Google and such) can be assured of an even larger role in tomorrow's society.

Repeat after me - we have no privacy

In the movie Minority Report, Tom Cruise escapes retinal detection by having his eyes replaced. But advertisers may not have to go so far as to use retinal scanners - your future smart phone will give them far more information than even the spyware on most desktops that run Internet Explorer.

El Reg comments on a New Scientist article The phone that knows your next move about a smartphone in development that will learn your habits by observing who you phone or data-connect, where you do it (location-based awareness) and when.

This may sound like something you may have a choice about, but if you had to pay 3 times as much for a telephone contract with a dumb phone (a large unlovely specimen, the kind you wouldn't be seen dead with), you might just have to take the smartphone which knows more about your social life than you do.

It's funny - back in 1978, a fairly intelligent but low-budget BBC sci-fi series Blake's Seven shocked my teen sensibilities with it's depiction of a tranquilised society watched over by cameras in all public spaces. Today I can't seem to get angry about that anymore, that makes me wonder what we'll accept tomorrow. Prozac anyone?

Monday Nov 15, 2004

European probe takes a long close look at the Moon

The European probe Smart 1 is ahead of schedule to reach it's orbit around the moon. It's efficient solar-powered Xenon ion fuel propulsion rocket will accelerate it slowly but steadily into a stable elliptical orbit (ranging 300 to 3000 km) around February 1st 2005.

Goals for the probe are to:

  • investigate the origin of the moon (currently believed to be the Earth's daughter, arising from a collision of a planetary embyro with the Earth 4.5 billion years ago)
  • investigate the Solar Systems' largest crater on the "dark side", to understand the moon's geology
  • shed light on the early composition of the Earth (the moon consists of material from the Earth's mantle)
  • look for suitable locations for future Moon colonies, such as the promising Peak of Eternal Light near the south pole; this region is flat, earning its name from the continuous sunlight (a source of heat and electrical power)
  • search for water-ice in deep craters which could provide water and oxygen

If all of these objectives can be achieved, it would greatly aid the creation of a continuously manned moonbase. The Moon's gravity (a sixth of Earth's) would help astronauts to maintain muscle tone and bone mass, assisted say by weighted clothing and a regimen of exercise. Imagine waking up to a view of Earth, a huge blue-green planet against the backdrop of an infinity of stars, partly eclipsed by the grey surface of the Moon - astonishing.

Historic advance in communication technology

It may seem like just another baby step (the kind we are used to seeing with web services, which will eventually enable a true pan-vendor service-oriented architecture), but I believe today we are seeing something closer to a "giant step for mankind".

A report by the European Commission recommends a common XML-based rich office productivity document format, the OASIS Open Office format, which is being put forward to become an ISO standard. The significance of this can hardly be over-emphasised - client and server applications create short-lived SOAP messages to invoke web services, but people create documents.

Imagine being able to use an office application today to create a document, and in ten years to be able to use a different version of the same application (or even a completely different application) to open and modify the same document. Now imagine you (or your child or grandchild) being able to do that in 50, or even 500 years. That is exactly what a common open standard document format makes possible.Rosetta Stone - the Key to understanding ancient alphabets

There is a very nice history of communication over on inventors.about.com, however it actually omits the Rosetta stone (see picture) which enabled archaeologists to understand writings in dead scripts. In many ways, a common electronic format for all kinds of office documents is like the creation of a universal electronic script - it gives us a way to store and exchange all kinds of rich documents with the knowledge that they can be read and understood long into the future. A rich open standard for documents can also replace serviceable creaky HTML as the Internet's universal format.

As we create technologies that are capable of storing ever more information (before the end of this century, we are likely to be able to store the entire content of the Internet on a hand-held device!), a common document format gives us the assurance that the information in our documents remains accessible. Which is good news for those of you who were perhaps thinking we were going to have to save the Internet as hard copy ;)

See Simon Phipps and Erwin Tenhumberg's comments for more about what was achieved and who supported it.

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ColmSmyth

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