Tuesday Nov 20, 2007

Foresight Vision Weekend 2007

 

About two weeks ago, two colleagues and I had the inspiring pleasure of attending the Foresight Vision Weekend 2007. This was the weekend before our annual TS Ambassador Conference at Sun, so we happened to be in the Bay Area where this unconference was held.

Ever since the year 2000, after I heard a talk from Eric Drexler on Nanotechnology during another Sun event, I've been fascinated by this topic and so I loosely followed the activities of the Foresight Institute. This event was a great way of catching up with recent developments - and an opportunity for me to have a reality check on how real all of this is, and can be.

Limited by our flight schedule, we only attended the second day of the conference. It started with a few motivational speakers as an introduction to the second half of the day which was held in the now popular unconference format.

A Systematic View on Anti-Aging 

The first talk about anti-aging was given by Chris Heward, President of the Kronos Science Laboratory. He explained their very systematic approach to analyze the effects of aging and what factory play what role in the process. The great thing about this talk was that there was no esoterics, no magic, no BS, just plain, number driven science full of hard facts about what aging actually is (a decrease of bio-functional abilities due to decaying body functions over time), a fresh view on the subject (we're already becoming "unnatually" old, so why not figure this out once and for all?) and some reality-checks on popular health myths (If fats are so bad, why is the US population becoming fatter and fatter despite all that non-fat food?).

So the systematic approach is quite simple, but effective: Figure out the primary causes of death (heart disease, skeletal dysfunction, cancer) and find ways to prevent them from happening as early as possible. The "as early as possible" part is the most important one: The earlier one starts to work on preventing these factors, the longer the life expectancy. 

My takeaways:

  • Drink lots of water,
  • a BMI of 22-26 is a good place to be (I'm at 23),
  • avoid eating empty calories (all the "white" stuff that is not meat),
  • eat colorful veggies,
  • some supplements are actually really good (he especially mentioned Vitamin E and Omega-3 fatty acids),
  • exercise regularly. Actually, this is the biggest factor, capable of even compensating for a fat or a smoking lifestyle! I really need to start jogging again...

One interesting but not well understood factor in aging is hormones. There's a strong correlation between dropping levels of male and female sex hormones and their negative symptoms in ageing (obvious, isn't it?), but it is not understood yet if and how taking hormon supplements really helps you overcome ageing symptoms. Plus, taking hormones as pills is likely to produce other problems (as in liver overload...).

Anyway, this was a fascinating talk and I now need to understand more on this subject, although separating the wheat from the chaff is difficult if you're not a doctor or a biochemist...

Productive Nanosystems Roadmap 

This conference covered a great variety of topics, so the next talk by Pearl Chin was on a completely different topic: The Productive Nanosystems Roadmap. What's a productive nanosystem you might ask? It's a machine that operates at the molecular level to create things in an atomically precise way. Watch this short movie to see one in action.

The Productive Nanosystems Roadmap is all about the "How do we get there?" aspects of Molecular Nanotechnology. Similar to, but more challenging than the semiconductor business, this involves a huge amount of interdisciplinary work by physicists, chemists, biotechnologists, computer scientists, mechanical engineers, process technologists and many more. By synchronizing and bringing together different fields of research and development, the Nanotechnology Roadmap facilitates the creation of Productive Nanosystems.

Can't wait to having one of these replicators in my home...

Open Source Security

Yet another interesting and completely different subject: Open Source Security, by Christine Peterson, a founder of the Foresight Institute. The current physical security mechanisms, as implemented by major governments are hugely centralized (as in DoD-centralized), not transparent (who knows really what happens inside the NSA, or behind the doors of your friendly airport security operations?) and they have a huge impact on privacy (Did you know that "they" know what you read on an airplane?).

The idea of this talk is: Centralized security has its flaws (what happens if someone takes out the central parts of a nation's security system?), obscure security measures are prone to becoming a security threat by themselves (In Germany there's a current debate about the police monitoring license plates on a big scale vs. privacy rights) and of course, there's no fun in living in a 100% controlled and watched Orwellian society. So why not try to create a security system that is transparent, distributed and still protects privacy?

This "Open Source Security" system could be everywhere (like a neighborhood watch), it would be open to anyone (so nobody can manipulate the system) and it would work without invading people's privacies (a neighborhood watch keeps the neighbors secure, but doesn't know a thing about, say, the next cities' neighborhoods).

Interesting concept and hopefully one that is going to be developed further. Sounds much, much better than what current governments would like to implement...

Mapping the Technology Landscape

I can't remember the exact title of this session, but this sounds like a good fit. The first of the afternoon sessions I visited (there were several in parallel and we couldn't visit all of them) was about finding the right way to categorize new technologies as they emerge and create headlines. It was run by Phil Bowermaster who has an excellent blog called "The Speculist" and an accompaining podcast called "Fast Forward Radio".

After blogging for a while, Phil came up with a 2-dimensional coordinate system for charting technologies, based on the axes "Impact on Society" and "Impact on Technology". While this seemed to work for charting "spot resistant nano-pants" (low impacts on both society and technology, placing it into the "fake" corner) vs., say, a desktop molecular nanofactory (now we're getting serious...), it didn't feel like the real thing for charting new technology.

So, Phil showed us his improved coordinate systems, this time based on the axes "transformation" and "disruption". It intuitively makes more sense, as it better models the impact of technology on the world as we know it. But every model is only good until the next one comes around, so Phil welcomes your suggestions, too. See his article on "Disruption and Transformation".

Self-Improving A.I.

No futuristic conference without at least one A.I. related topic. Artificial Intelligence may have had a difficult story in the past, but the truth is that people tend to dismiss any advance in A.I. as being "nice, but not the real thing", be it speech recognition, route planning or beating Kasparov at chess playing. What's going to be the next milestone that people will choose to treat as "not real A.I.?".

Ray Kurzweil observed that the development of technology happens at an accelerating pace. In fact, Moore's law only deals with advances in semiconductor technology, but it's pattern of modeling the increasing amount of available calculations per $1000 can be observed all the way back to early mechanical calculators. Looking into the future, semiconductor experts are confident that Moore's law will hold at least into the next 15-20 years - and there are some more exciting technologies waiting to be used for computations onces semiconductor chips become uninteresting. If the current rate of technological progress continues, then we will see a $1000 PC have the power of a human brain by 2025. Not a long time from now.

Steve Omohundro's session on self-improving A.I. dealt with the questions such as: What will drive self-improving A.I.s? What are the benefits and risks of self-improving A.I.s? What should we try to do right before they arrive? Read more about this topic at the Self-aware Systems website.

And for the lighter side of it, here's a hilarious comic on a very similar subject :).

Nanotech Literacy

Perhaps the most important aspect of nanotechnology right now is it's acceptance. As soon as you learn about the great powers of nanotechnology, you can't help but imagine the great peril it might bring. Bill Joy's famous article "Why the future doesn't need us" is only one example.

But is denying or opposing change a solution? Certainly not. If we refuse to learn about the next wave of technology, others will. So we better learn how to do it right from the start. One major focus of the Foresight Institute is to advance beneficial nanotechnology, partly by educating people about it's potential benefits to humanity.

Miguel Aznar's session on Nanotech Literacy focused on how to make Nanotechnology more accessible and understandable to children and students in schools. I think this is a great way of spreading the word, as it instantly will touch their parents as well. I used to teach my parents how to program our VCR, and I'm looking forward to my daughter teaching me how to operate our first family molecular nanotech factory :)

Read more in Miguel's blog.

Conclusion

This really was a most inspiring event. My goal was to understand more about the reality behind Nanotech and other future technologies, and I got much more out of this day than I expected. I'm very proud to see that Sun is a corporate member of the Foresight Institute and I'm going to sign up with them as a senior associate soon. I'm convinced that every dollar spent in advancing beneficial Nanotechnology is going to save us more trees and more species, reduce the levels of CO2 more aggressively, provide more clean energy, cure more cancers and advance humankind more thoroughly in the long term than any other investment.

If you want to learn more about the subject of Nanotechnology, I recommend looking at one of these articles.

Monday Aug 13, 2007

So, where's the future of HD Audio?

Gerald Beuchelt gives a nice overview of the two HD Audio formats SACD and DVD-Audio in his blog "Web Services Contraptions".

IMHO, the audio industry has two big problems with HD Audio:

  1. Too few consumers/retailers/publishers care about HD Audio turning it into a small niche,
  2. this niche is scattered across many different formats.

Let's look at the first point for a second: Since the introduction of the CD, the consumer has been conditioned into thinking that 16 Bit/44.1 kHz is "good enough" to present audio to the human ear in a quality that is indistinguishable from the real thing. At the time (the 80s) it made sense from a marketing perspective as a successful industry effort to introduce a major new medium. But the truth is that neither 16 Bit dynamic resolution nor 44.1 kHz frequency range is really enough:

  • According to this table (though this other table is more fun), A symphonic orchestra reaches a sound level of 110 dBA, a rock concert 120 dBA (which is the threshold of pain). Yes, a good classical piece of music at high volume can be a lot of fun, I recommend Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" for your first steps into classical pogo-music, but I digress.
    The CD's 16 Bit of resolution allow the representation of signals with up to 96 dB of dynamic range, so emulating a symphonic orchestra is out of the question. Ok, your comfortable volume may be less than 96 dB, but if you want to listen to a highly dynamic piece of music (a piece of music that both contains very low-volume and very high volume pieces) and enjoy a good SNR, then the CD is pushed to its limits. Most professional audio equipment therefore agrees to use 24 Bit encoding.
  • 44.1 kHz of sampling frequency allows the accurate representation of sounds up to 22.050 kHz which is indeed beyond the human auditory range, but this is not enough: The more a high-pitch tone approaches the sampling frequency, the less possibilities there are to encode it's phase. Phase differences between the two stereo channels are very important: Your ears and your brain use them to derive the exact location of the sound. The CD resolution of 44.1 kHz only allows for the accurate representation of phase difference in the range of .05 milliseconds, which is less than what your ears can actually measure. In other words: If you listen to your classical favourite CD, but can's quite make out where on the stage a flute is playing, it may be that you need more than 44.1 kHz sampling rate.
    Another problem with 44.1 kHz sampling rates is that they do not allow to represent overtones higher than 22.050 kHz. This affects the fine nuances that distinguish high quality instruments from regular ones. That Stradivari might sound like a cheap replica if you're listening to it from a regular CD.
  • In addition, CDs only allow to store 2 channels (stereo) of audio. Anybody who has enjoyed a live concert, either rock or in a music hall, can experience that real life has more than two front channels.

The bottom line: Your ears and your hearing system in the brain is a remarkably accurate measuring system for audio signals and the CD does not do it justice. Check out this great article on "Music and the Human Ear" for some more amazing insights.

So, issue #1 is that the average consumer thinks CDs are good enough, CDs are it and why should they invest money in something that claims to sound better? Especially when people today are using MP3 to massacre their sound save valuable storage space. They don't know what they're missing!

Issue #2 is non-technical, non-biological, but purely business-related: High definition audio formats have been at war with each other since a long time. Here is a selection of what's available today:

  • Vinyl: Yes, they are still alive and there's a big community of people who will swear that their vinyl records sound much better than CDs when played on proper equipment. Some factors here are related to the limitations of CDs vs. analog recordings, some are purely psychological, but altogether, the Vinyl market is still there (just search for "vinyl" on Amazon) and it apparently is worth doing business with.
  • SACD: SACDs go beyond traditional digital PCM encoding by using a form of encoding called DSD, which essentially means using a very, very high sampling frequency (2.8 MHz) and recording a single bit that tells you if the wave has been going down in amplitude or up since the last sampling. Hybrid SACDs are backwards-compatible to CDs and they can store music both in stereo and in surround sound.
  • DVD-A: DVD-Audio is a format that competes directly with SACD. It goes beyond the 16-Bit/44.1 kHz specification of the CD and offers up to 24 Bit/192 kHz of pure audio pleasure. Both stereo and surround sound are available but there's no backward-compatibility with CDs. DVD-Audio discs may have an additional channel with Dolby Digital encoded music that makes them backward-compatible with regular DVDs, at the expense of audio quality.

All three of the above enjoy a small niche market where any particular music piece may or may not be available in one or more of the above formats. But the future is even more flawed:

  • Media choice: The war between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD has only just begun. Both media types offer HD-Audio using a variety of codecs (see below), but there is no agreement on which one has to be present on each disc. Consumers therefore are confused on what kind of player to buy and most will probably wait and see who wins.
  • Codec choice: Assuming there was no Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD war, the next level of confusion is what HD-Audio codec to choose from: Dolby and DTS are fighting for the better HD codec adoption, while other alternatives include Sony's DSD (see SACD) which is rumored to be expanded and Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP), the codec behind DVD-Audio.
  • Audio Connection Hell: We haven't talked yet about how to connect your media player to your multi-channel amplifier/receiver. With good reason: This article is already becoming longer than I intended it to be. Suffice to say: Connecting a high resolution media player with an amplifier is a non-trivial task. You either have to use standard analog connections (which is difficult to do properly and kinda makes the whole point of digital high-quality music moot) or you may or may not be able to use a digital connection (depending on the proprietaryness of the codec, or the HDMI version, or whether your media player is from the same manufacturer than your receiver). The reason here has mostly to do with copy protection: If high resolution audio travels over a digital cable losslessly, the media industry wants to make it 100% sure it does so in an encrypted form to prevent copying.

So, issue two can be summarized as: The market for high resolution audio is already a small niche, and thanks to media wars, codec wars and connection/copy-protection wars, it split up into many confusing and even smaller sub-markets that make the hen-and-egg problem of introducing a new standard an unneccessarily hard factor, if not impossible.

Bottom line: So you've learned that the grass beyond 16-Bit/44.1 kHz can be greener, but the fence to overcome is unneccesarily high and thorny.

Gerald and I both love music in high resolution formats. Hell, we're even willing to spend more money on equipment and media because we know we'll get better quality, while our ears still can hear it. We may be part of a small niche, but I would argue that high-end niches are good and offer a nice business opportunity to both equipment vendors and content companies. So why, oh why is the industry making it so hard to hear your favourite music at a better than average sound quality?

Gerald's latest post is about Linn records, a company that offers high resolution, high-quality audio recordings on DVD-A, SACD, Vinyl and, tadah! as an electronic download. Kudos to them for being truly open and war-independent and forward-thinking in how they try to serve their customers. This evening I'll go to their website and download some music from them only for the sake of supporting this effort.

Happy listening! 

 

Sunday Aug 12, 2007

ZFS Interview in the POFACS Podcast (German)

Last week, I've been interviewed by the german podcast POFACS, the podcast for alternative computer systems. Today, the interview went live, so if you happen to understand the german language and want to learn about ZFS while driving to work or while jogging, you're invited to listen to the interview.

I was actually amazed at how long the interview turned out: It's 40 minutes, while recording the piece only felt like 20 minutes or so. The average commute time in germany is about 20 minutes, so this interview will easily cover both ways to and from work. But there's more: This episode of POFACS also introduces you to the NetBSD operating system, the German Unix User Group GUUG. Finally, the guys at POFACS were also so kind to feature the HELDENFunk podcast in a short introductory interview. Thanks!

So with a total playing time if 1 hour and 20 minutes, this episode has you covered for at least two commutes or a couple of jogging runs :).

Monday Aug 06, 2007

New Public Podcast: HELDENFunk (in German)

HELDENFunk IconYou might have heard of systemhelden.com in one of my other posts. This is a german community for system administrators and other heroes of IT that is fun to belong to and that is enjoying a nice growth in popularity.

Today, we added a podcast (sorry, it's in german) to this community called "HELDENFunk". This podcast features stories from the Systemhelden.com community, tech news and other fun stuff. In this first episode, we discuss how the Systemhelden.com website is hosted in a Solaris 10 container on a Sun Fire X4200 server at our ISP Cyberways in Augsburg, then Rolf discusses how you can calculate your CO2 footprint out of your server's wattage and he introduces the Sun EcoTour, which is a mobile blog written by a journalist that rides a bike across Germany. Wolfgang Stief is our special guest, he works at Best Systeme and is in the process of setting up Solaris 10 Zones on a Sun Fire T2000 server for GUUG, the German Unix User's Group. We interview another great podcast called POFACS, the podcast for alternative computer systems and we feature Sun's Magnum Switch and a funny video about blending an Apple iPhone in our news section.

Producing the podcast was great fun. We had great people in our studio (Read: conference room...) and quite a few laughs. Thanks to Marc Baumann, we had great microphones and a mixer to record with. My NI Audio Kontrol 1 audio interface, featured in an earlier blog post, proved to provide excellent recording quality. We used quite a complicated setup to conduct a phone interview over Skype but which turned to work quite well. And again, Marc edited and cut everything very nicely so everything now just sounds great.

We plan to publish a new episode each month, so feel free to let us know what you'd like us to cover and what suggestions you might have. Just write to kontakt at systemhelden dot com.

Tuesday Jul 31, 2007

New Year's Resolutions

Yesterday, we've announced good financial results for the last fiscal year 07. Very good financial results. I like working for a profitable company, it makes so many things so much easier.

Tomorrow, I'm going to have a meeting with my managers to discuss what to do next. Since we're early in the new financial year 08, I'm thinking about what to do next. So, here are some new year's priorities for my FY08 at Sun:

  • Web 2.0: I've been talking to customers, partners and Sun people in Germany about Web 2.0 a number of times. Every time, the feedback has been very clear: We want More! So I'm going to do more Web 2.0 related stuff: More blogging, podcasting, perhaps a successor to the now famous ZFS movie, more participation in social networking sites, including del.icio.us, XING and Facebook, more evangelizing and of course more insight into where this journey is headed to.
  • Technology: Sun is all about technology. We create, apply and leverage technology to enable the participation age. (Did you know that we've proclaimed the participation age before Tim O'Reilly published his famous Web 2.0 article?)
    We've seen Niagara changing the rules of processor technology and building the backbone of the web, again, and we've already disclosed some information on Niagara 2. We've seen the Constellation System debut during ISC 2007. You may have noticed that the Sun Ultra 40 Workstation is the best workstation on the planet, and BTW, we're changing the economics of true Video-On-Demand Streaming as well, just to name a few favourite technologies on my list.
    The biggest problem to solve now is: Spreading the word. Let me explain. Whenever I participate in a Sun day (A customer meeting in which Sun people present on new Sun technologies), two effects consistently happen: First, more people than originally planned show up (I once had people join in over a video conference line). Second, the meeting takes much longer than originally anticipated, because customers want to hear so much more about our technologies.
    Since we don't have much money to spend on advertising, sponsoring or other forms of traditional awareness generation, we need to do a lot more of these Sun days, and talk to customers one by one. Is this more difficult and time-consuming? Yes. Does this have a more lasting effect than traditional marketing? You bet. Only by talking to the experts at our customers are we able to verify that what we do is right and make sure our technology meets the people that want/need/develop for/join/use/participate in it. In FY08, I'm going to participate in more Sun days and talk to as many customers about Sun technology as I can.
  • Solaris: This may be a sub-topic of "Technology", but it really is a topic of its own: I use Solaris at home, on my laptop, evangelize it to customers, and it feeds my need as a computer scientist to learn about interesting things every day. In FY08, I'm going to use more new Solaris features at home and at work, write more about it (German readers: Check out this ZFS whitepaper), participate more in the OpenSolaris communities and make sure OpenSolaris gets the attention with developers, customers and partners that it deserves.
All in all, I'm sure FY08 is going to be interesting and fun. FY07 has been the year of technology announcements, FY08 will be the year of seeing them all in action. A year of interesting times.
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