November 2008 Archives

In the Pre-Budget Report, chancellor Alistair Darling put a lot of emphasis on the environment and used that for part of the stimulus package. He claimed £535m would go into bringing forward a plan to build more trains as well as put more efficient heating into low-income homes.

Darling claimed £300m would provide 200 new trains and it says that in the written version of the speech as well. But a closer inspection of the written report (p8, 112, 125) reveals that the money is for "up to 200 new rail carriages [to] be delivered earlier". Not quite 200 new trains then. More like 25.

At the same time, about £400m of spending is being brought forward to put more lanes on motorways.

Chewing through the watts

24 November 2008

Some tweets last night written by Danny Bradbury asking about the energy consumption of mobile phones alerted me to GreenYourPhone, a scheme cooked up by Boulder, Colorado-based Renewable Choice and the electronics chain Best Buy. For $10, you can salve your conscience over the amount of CO2 your talk and text habit produces.

The FAQ on the GreenYourPhone site claims a pair of mobile phones chews through 500kWh (kilowatt-hours) of electricity over a period of two years but is sketchy on where the figure comes from. The page cites Ericsson and Nokia studies but without links. Until Colorado wakes up, it's hard to check. But, looking at the last known studies from Ericsson, I reckon they are using this summary, which claims the amount of CO2 thrown out by the entire mobile network per subscriber per year was 54kg in 2002, falling to 38kg in 2005.

To get to how many kilowatt-hours you need to produce that CO2 you need to divide by around 0.4 if you use the older 54kg figure, which is what I think GreenYourPhone did. This approximates roughly to the mix of coal- and gas-fired power plants found in a country like the US. For every kilowatt-hour of electricity, you produce 0.4kg of CO2. If you use the more up-to-date figure – and efficiency in the network keeps improving, although 3G will never be as power-efficient as GSM – you get to 95kWh.

If you think 125kWh per phone per year sounds a bit steep when the battery stores less than 4Wh – a full charge every day for a year is still only 1.5kWh – the amount does not just over the phones or the energy needed to make them, it accounts for all the equipment that connects them together when you make each and every call.

Even so, GreenYourPhone does fairly well out of the deal. Taking a look at carbon-offset costs, you could cheerfully buy credits for up to five years' worth of calls by shopping around. Offset costs run to between $5 and $30 for a whole metric tonne of CO2. Compare that to $10 for a fifth of that amount. You get a sticker though and "your purchase helps schools" on account of some of them having wind turbines installed.

Google developers do it live

23 November 2008

Now I get it. Google's SearchWiki isn't an attempt to kill off Mahalo or Wikia Search or part of an elaborate self-destruct plan for the number-one search engine, it's an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records with the World's Largest Extreme-Programming Project.


Strangely, Google hasn't slapped a 'beta' logo on the SearchWiki pages. These are where you get to see comments on the search results. Maybe it's so pre-alpha that it's coming round the other way. The number of times the interface – which is still screwed up – has changed, they're coming back the other way through the Greek alphabet. I'd say they're somewhere around psi (ψ) but that would imply the people working on this project have some insight into the desires of Google's users. Which, looking at what's happened so far, isn't the case.

I could describe how SearchWiki fits in with the regular Google search pages but, by the time this gets posted, it will probably have mutated into a spinning Möbius strip of commments that, if you click on it, goes straight to a fake Canadian pharmacy.

What's important is what's happening in the background.

While doing some remedial maintenance on this blog, I noticed that the links to the static pages, such as the about page, had fallen off. I went into MT4's configuration panel to see if anything had gone funny with the widget that collects the static pages together. It all seemed fine there.

Viewing the source showed that the expected <div> tags and other paraphernalia generated by the widget were all there. It just wasn't picking up the static pages sitting in the database. I modified one to see if that had an effect. No dice. Then I created a new test page, which appeared straightaway. So, I copied the details from the contact page into the new page, renamed it and suddenly it turned up on the home page.

Then I remembered that I had the blog set to display pages on the home page only for a certain number of days. Could that affect a widget that is meant to show static pages? Surprise, surprise. Changing the setting to display the three most recent entries brought the link to the other static page back to the home page.

Why the other widgets don't seem affected by the setting is a mystery. Either some of the other edits I made had a delayed effect or there is some code in the page-listing widget that causes it to be affected by the home-page preference. If MT4's documentation was any good, I might have a chance of tracking down the problem. But, you find the documentation for a fairly important MT tag such as <mt:Pages> is this:

A container tag which iterates over a list of pages--which pages depends on the context the tag is being used in. Within each iteration, you can use any of the page variable tags.

Because pages are basically non-date-based entries, the the Pages tag is very similar to Entries.

Attributes unique to the Pages tag:

  • folder

    Use folder label, not basename.
  • include_subfolders

    Specify '1' to cause all pages that may exist within subfolders to the folder in context to be included.

There isn't even a code example. You have to go and reverse engineer an existing template to work out what's going on. With 'help' like this, you pretty quickly lose confidence in the documentation's ability to tell you anything useful.

Dear Movable Type, Wordpress is kicking your butt because it's too darn hard to find out how to do things on MT4.

My next problem is to work out what is gluing up the MT4 database. For that I need a schema because I don't fancy doing a parallel installation just to find out if there is a missing index. Finding that schema is another matter. You might expect to find it in the documentation. So would I.

When Apple's director of the Unix technology group Jordan Hubbard spoke at the LISA 08 conference for big-iron server admins, he flashed up a slide that indicated Snow Leopard is coming earlier rather than later. The result, naturally, is plenty of speculation that release 10.6 of Mac OS X might make an appearance at Macworld in January 2009.

There are some clues pointing to an earlier rather than later release. One is the 25th anniversary of the Macintosh itself. It seems unlikely that Steve Jobs is going to get on-stage at Macworld and talk about an iPhone with more flash memory or iPods in dayglo orange and green. Mac Pros, at the very least, with Intel's Nehalem processors together with faster GPUs and probably multiple GPUs seem likely.

Then there are the machines that won't get a refresh in January: the MacBook and 15in MacBook Pro notebook machines. The Pro machines have two graphics processor units in them which, right now, cannot be used together.

As Snow Leopard is the release that is meant to make the GPUs accessible to regular programmers and make better use of all the processor cores in a machine, I think it's a fairly safe bet that Apple will want to bring the software in for those machines sooner rather than later.

And then you have the timeline in Hubbard's table. The slides are available from Usenix, and were noticed by MacRumors which flagged up the content.

The slide shows 10.6 (with the Snow Leopard portion showing as black on black for some reason) going live in the first quarter of next year, 14 months or more after Leopard first shipped in late October 2007.

Spansion is trying to milk the attention that comes with supposedly green technologies for all its worth. If you think today's release about EcoRAM is familiar, that's because it is. In June, Spansion talked about its deal with startup Virident and a plan to bung shedloads of flash memory into servers in a bid to save power. Today's 'story' is touted as revealing the architecture.

It does nothing of the sort. The only thing I know now that I didn't before is that they need to put a memory controller into an x86 socket and that Linux rather than Windows Server is the target. I spent about 30 minutes on the phone yesterday on this one with Florian Bauch, who runs sales in Europe. The powers that be had not even told him what is going on with the EcoRAM.

First up, what makes sense about the plan. Since the Internet bubble popped in 2001, DRAM makers went on a go-slow. Up to that point, they had been predicting 4Gbit parts would be on sale in the middle of this decade. Right now, they are barely able to get 2Gbit parts into production.

Flash, thanks to the rise of media players and digital cameras, has surged ahead. Samsung has claimed it will soon be able to put 64Gbit devices into production. You get a lot more memory capacity for the same money. On top of that, flash consumes less power than DRAM because it does not need to be continually refreshed.

So, in principle, you can shove a load more memory into a server for less money and expect the machine to consume less power. Where's the catch?

Nosey parkers

14 November 2008

Seamus McCauley at Virtual Economics finds Max Mosley's latest claims a bit hard to believe. "I'm entertained today by Max Mosley's claim that his 'sex life is of interest to no one but this squalid industry'", writes McCauley.

Mosley argued: "No reasonable adult will ever object to (or even be interested in) what others do in their bedrooms provided it is consensual, lawful and in private."

In fact, Mosley contradicted himself in the space of a couple of paragraphs: "To keep this squalid industry afloat, an unrestricted right to publicise the sex lives of others is necessary."

If no-one's selling newspapers on the back of the "sex lives of others", why are they doing it?

There is a big difference between "object to" and "be interested in". Three years ago in the US Judge James Kleinberg found against websites wanting to publish what Apple regarded as trade secrets, writing: "An interested public is not the same as the public interest". Mosley's problem was you don't have to object to something to be interested in it. The News of the World presumably understood the distinction, which is why it focused on the uniforms worn by Mosley's pretend tormentors. But, in reality, that was the mechanism by which the paper would justify publishing a story that was more about satisfying public prurience. And that's where Mosley's claim about a disinterested public falls down, as McCauley argues:

"That it was considered worth splashing across the front page of the most popular English-language newspaper in the world and increased traffic to its website by a claimed 600% rather belies this curious claim."

"Newspapers don't, in fact, tend to publish things that are only of interest to other journalists, except once a week in the Guardian's Media Section."

One of the continuing mysteries about the passing of old media is that old media still gets all of the blame for serving up what large chunks of the audience actually wants. If we all get to choose what we see and read, surely some of that blame goes to the people making those choices?

Mosley is right in that his private life should not have been served up before a public that had little interest in who he was but only wanted the titillating details. But that is a long way from saying they aren't interested in other people's business. And a lot of them are like Paul Dacre: hungry for the details so they can fulminate against them (or something like that) in the comfort of their own homes.

It's quiet round here...

11 November 2008

...because a bunch of stuff has gone up at my synthetic and systems biology blog in the wake of the iGEM competition over the weekend in Boston. In this contests, students from around the world try to tweak simple lifeforms such as bacteria and yeast, at least for the moment, to do useful things:

Dude, where's my DNA?

Winners at iGEM

iGEM's growing pains

Flight liveblogging

8 November 2008

This wasn't how I anticipated trying out Internet access several miles up in the air.

When I got to the American Airlines gates at San Francisco airport, a couple of people in lime-green T-shirts were handing out leaflets on the in-flight WiFi that some of the planes now have. I was flying to Boston, so it looked as though that service didn't have the wireless routers onboard. The much more regular services to JFK were on the map on the back.

Then, about 40 minutes before the Boston plane was due to take off, we got the dreaded announcement that the aircraft had a mechanical and there were no spare planes to replace it. It was time to queue up for the full Planes, Trains and Automobiles experience, through a mixture of dialing the 1-800 number and getting to the desk.

In the end, so I wouldn't miss the whole first day of the iGEM competition at MIT, I went for the option of getting to JFK late at night and then get a short flight up to Boston early in the morning. And so, that is how I'm trying out the Gogoinlight system.

I was expecting it to be a lot more expensive than it currently is as you don't get to find out the price until you actually crack open the laptop and the Gogo people were handing out 25%-off coupons as you went through the gate. It turned out to be $12.95. Based on how airlines introduced things like infight calls, I expected the price to be closer to $50. It's more expensive than T-Mobile on the ground, especially when you consider that the maximum online time you can get is around five hours versus the theoretical 24 hours from a $6 T-Mobile day pass.

Speed is OK but I haven't tried any video services yet. However, the potential for even more useless tweets seems immense. "Here come the drinks", "Queueing for toilet", "Woah, bit of turbulence there" - it's all going to happen. Maybe Aircell, which does the anti-smut filter for the system, apparently, can work on that.

The people who think up euphemistic ways for announcing layoffs probably think they are being really clever when they do it. Because I can't think of any reason why this sort of nonsense is a good idea:

"ST-NXP Wireless Adjusts to Changed Business Conditions and Accelerates Efforts to Capture Identified Synergies"

This isn't just lipstick on the pig, it's a complete plastic surgery job, only to find that you've made a Wacko Jacko-style horlicks of the whole operation. What part of that headline doesn't scream "we're cutting loads of jobs, so many that we felt the need to disguise it"?

It's not just an irritation for people reporting on these events as it serves to bury the salient points, it is an insult to the people directly affected. It signals a callousness to their plight all in the name of trying to organise a less 'negative' headline. Contrast this to how NXP handled its own cutbacks a couple of months ago where there was no attempt to paper over the cuts. Yes, the immediate headlines look bad but you don't leave the lingering bad taste that comes from this kind of mealy-mouthed nuspeak.