Technology: April 2009 Archives

Dear Jacqui

29 April 2009

Dear Jacqui Smith c/o the Home Office,

I thought I'd better send you a little note on some of my recent Internet usage in advance of the creation of the great Panopticon that HM Government plans to assemble with the help of ISPs (BTW, did you know Phorm does the kind of thing you're after? Maybe you should talk to BT about it).

I happened to ask casually on the Internet social-networking system known as Twitter whether the song Crazy Naked Ladies by the popular beat combo Super Furry Animals was an homage to fellow Welsh act Man. You may remember them from the 1970s through songs such as Bananas and Spunk Rock.

It has been drawn to my attention that attempting to look for this information on Google might lead to pages that are inappropriate for any right-thinking adult. So, I thought I'd better get in the habit of warning the forces of law and order lest a search like that be encountered during a fishing expedition for evidence of wrong-doing on my part. I hope you understand.

Maybe I should keep a thought-crime diary just to be on the safe side.

On a side note, did you know there are people who offer Internet services via satellite? I'm guessing they are outside UK jurisdiction. Maybe you should make use of their services illegal in the UK in case naughty people realise there is a way to avoid having their online access recorded in perpetuity. Just a thought.


A good party member

I don't think Tommo (it's what it said on the back of his shirt) meant to sound just like Dom Joly but as he came through the surging mass of runners between Charlton and Greenwich on the London Marathon, it was hard to think of anyone else as he shouted into his phone: "I'm at the five-mile point!"

A few seconds later I passed someone else relaying their trials with a weak calf muscle not to their running companion but to someone at the other end of the phone. With the number of runners taking part, it was one of the few ways that anyone saw their friends and relatives in the crowd. One company had set up a text alert system to let people know where their friends were in the mass but it was only accurate to 5km, because that's where the timing-chip mats were placed, largely to provide the split times for the elite runners.

To be honest, I thought about taking the phone with me but then decided against it, thinking the Garmin GPS stopwatch was enough technology to accompany me for about the next five and a half hours, largely in the name of getting this map.


But I wasn't alone. When we passed the start point with its transceiver screaming like a forgotten burglar alarm, I could hear the bleeps of about ten or fifteen Forerunners and other stopwatches being started.

But I was seriously underdressed in the mid-course sustenance department judging by some of the runners, who had Carbo-Gel and other high-energy pick-me-ups stuffed into their Bat-Belts. Tommo had his left arm encased in silvery gel packets.

But some people worked out how heavy their sports aids would feel by about the 20-mile point. In Poplar, I spotted thirty quid's worth of Camelpak - it's a kind of beer hat for runners - lying in the gutter amid the bottles of Vittel and Lucozade Sport that were handed out free. Realistically, what I needed to carry was a spare set of legs because, after about four bottles of energy drink I could probably have stayed awake for a week. I'd just have to do it sitting down.

Technology also had a role in one near-nasty accident. A purple iPod Shuffle popped off a woman's arm holster. "Oh shit," she said as she whirled round and bent down to pick it up. "Fuck me," exclaimed the guy who collided with her and nearly went head first into the ground, although he managed to stay upright and carry on.

Musical highlights on the way had to be the taiko drummers underneath the A2 at Charlton, making the most of the resonance of hundreds of tons of concrete, and the drummers at Canary Wharf. An honourable mention goes to the blues band sitting outside the Sun in the Sands just after the start. Nil point to the dodgy europop van in Wapping.

Acer held a demo session for its upcoming AspireRevo, based on the combination of an Atom processor and the nVidia 9400M graphics processor earlier today. At the same time, the company showed the 3D wireless controller it was going to ship with the top-end model for around 300 quid: a Wiimote-style device you can bend into the shape of a gun.

The controller is made by fellow Taiwanese company Cywee, but Acer product manager Peter Aaen said that name probably won't appear on the systems that ship on 5 May in the UK, which is probably just as well. Like the Wii controllers, the Cywee Z, which got a first showing at CES earlier in the year, has accelerometers in it. It communicates with the base unit through an RF dongle that plugs into one of the Revo's USB ports. It should work with games and interface that can cope with 3D mice; one game that works with the controller directly is, not surprisingly, a golfing simulator.

The idea behind the Revo is that it's a "family living-room" PC for internet browsing and games, which is why the company has added the option of the weemote, as opposed to the Wiimote. That's why one of the chip suppliers, nVidia, was at the demo. The Revo concept pushes the idea of processor inversion: that the graphics processor is potentially more important than the central processor in consumer products. The 9400M is in there to run HD-video as well as games, and offload things like video compression and photo editing, in the hope that no-one will notice that the x86 is just an Atom and not a Core2 Duo or an i7.

The argument from nVidia is that, for around £200 to £300 you can buy a PC that consumes less power and is about as fast on games as a £500 Core2 Duo machine with a discrete graphics card in the back. User tests will show how realistic this is. However, the demo machine happily played 1080p video and one or two games. It might be enough to tip the decision from a Wii to a PC, especially when you take into account the internet and video support.

Until Windows 7 ships and, in the Mac world, Snow Leopard the reality is that a lot of applications rely more on the CPU than the GPU. However, by focusing on video decoding and games, Acer and nVidia hope that the Atom and GPU combination will provide a better balance. Until more applications are recoded to use GPUs and software libraries such as DX11 Compute, OpenCL and CUDA, real-world performance is likely to be quite variable. It'll be interesting to see how a Mac Mini running Boot Camp fares against the Acer option. Or, indeed, a Hackintoshed Revo.

As with the Acer Atom-based netbooks, the Revo runs either Linux in the cheap models or Windows in the more expensive versions. But it's Ubuntu Linux this time - not the customised Linpus Linux that Acer has on the netbooks. This, apparently, was down to "customer demand". Right now, it looks as though Acer is going to persevere with its homebrew Linux for netbooks, although there is a strong push from some of the chipmakers for the system makers to get a grip and standardise on one or two of the common distros, such as Ubuntu. ARM, for one, is very keen on Ubuntu. And an ARM11 will feature in the nVidia Tegra-based netbooks expected to ship later this year, as well as a crop of designs from other chipmakers based on the later A8 and A9 cores from ARM.

Back in the 1980s as I was thinking about what to do at university, I was told that doing a Computing A-level was a bad idea if I was going on to do Computer Science as a degree. It was all academic as I wound up picking chemistry in a process that wasn't much more deterministic than flipping a coin but I remember the argument that computing was now a science and desperate to flaunt it.

In practice, it was more an issue of branding than of reality especially at places such as Imperial College, London, as computing science was administered by the City & Guilds College of engineering, not the Royal College of Science where, ahem, all the proper sciences hung out. And dodgy 1960s civil engineering bequeathed them a building with a dirty great big crack down the front.

Listening to Joseph Sifakis of the CNRS Verimag laboratory talk at the Design Automation and Test in Europe (DATE) conference this week, it seemed as though Computer Science's status of a science is still in doubt.

In a whirlwind tour of computer science for building embedded systems - that is, the computers that pilot aircraft, control car brakes and control consumer gadgets - Sifakis said practice has far outstripped theory. There is very little in computer science that lets people take a model and predict how its real-world equivalent will fare. Want to know? You'll have to build a real one and find out.