Friday, February 25, 2011

This Thunderbolt won't hurt you

Standards are wonderful things but the problem is there are just too darn many of them.

Take a look at the humble PC for instance... over the years it's been littered with more sockets and connectors than you can shake a stick at and all so that it can connect to other bits of hi-tech gear.

In the beginning there was the humble RS232, a simple and slow connection that allowed the transfer of data between computers or between computer and peripheral. Unfortunately, RS232 was hardly plug and play.

To make devices with RS232 connections talk to each other you had to tweak around with all manner of settings such as baud rates, parity settings, stop-bits, DTR, CTS, CD and a host of other options, any one of which could turn an otherwise meaningful data interchange into garbage -- or just utter silence.

Other standards were also used. There was the VGA connection for your old colour monitor, the ISA bus inside the box and the Centronics parallel port for hooking up printers, and sometimes scanners.

Over the years, many new standards appeared and most of them have already long since vanished without trace. There was IBM's MCA, the VL-Bus, IDE, SCSI and many more that are hardly worth a mention.

Now we have USB and USB 2.0 as well as FireWire, ethernet, SATA etc, etc, bla, bla...

So do we really need yet another connector on our computers and another standard to add to the long list of here-today, gone-tomorrow acronyms and coded titles?

Well Intel thinks so.

They've just announced "Thunderbolt".

Woohoo... sounds exciting, doesn't it?

But do we really need it?

One of the key claims for Thunderbolt is its gobsmackingly high data-transfer rates. It's 20 times faster than USB 2.0 and 12 times faster than good old FireWire.

Apparently, using Thunderbolt you could transfer an entire HD movie in under 30 seconds -- if it weren't for the pesky DRM that would likely ankle-tap such an attempt before it even got started.

The system uses PCI Express and can operate as a daisy-chain, allowing for an almost unlimited number of peripherals to connect through a single port.

It is this daisy-chaining and multiplexing that makes Thunderbolt quite a cool connection. In theory, a computer would need only a single Thunderbolt connector to hook up every peripheral you could ever need. Display, keyboard, mouse, scanner, printer, network -- they could all be daisy-chained off that single little connector.

Right now, the latest MacBooks are among the first computers to offer a Thunderbolt port however, I expect it's only a matter of time before the back of your desktop and your laptop become a lot less cluttered -- as everyone jumps on the Thunderbolt bandwagon.

Yes, just what we needed -- yet another standard!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Beware the sunny days to come

The sun is a wonderful thing.

It is an almost limitless source of energy that keeps us warm, provides us with food and has the potential to eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels.

After a cold, dark winter, it's great to feel the warm sun on your face and enjoy its therapeutic effects on one's state of mind.

However, the sun is not entirely benign. Along with the good that it delivers -- come dangers.

In the case of mere human beings, that danger can be DNA damage caused by the intense ultra-violet radiation -- damage that can result in fatal melanomas.

And, in the case of our technology, it can also bring the risk of massive failures on a global scale.

Just this week the sun demonstrated its power to do harm by creating a series of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that hurled a cloud of charged particles out into space -- some of them headed in our direction.

When these charged particles hit the earth's magnetosphere, they create massive changes in the field which surrounds our planet and these changes can induce massive currents in any conductors across which they pass.

The effect of these magnetic disturbances can be anything from a harmless increase in the level of static noise on our radios -- to huge current surges that destroy transformers and switching gear throughout the electricity grids of the world.

What's more, any satellites that might be orbiting on the sunny-side of the earth can also encounter forces that could effectively knock out the delicate electronic systems onboard.

In a single wave of destruction, much of our communications, GPS and power reticulation could be rendered inert -- all be cause the sun had a bit of a hiccup.

Of course these events have happened before - but it's only been the last hundred years or so that we've made ourselves vulnerable to them. Go back a few centuries and no matter how hard the sun tried to blast us with these CMEs, we simply would not have noticed. No radio, no reticulated electricity, no hi-tech electronics.

Today however, it's a completely different story and some are predicting that it's only a matter of time before a significant solar event wreaks havoc on your hi-tech world.

This week's CME is said to signal the start of a new burst of activity from the sun, in the form of a new solar sun-spot cycle.

Hold on to your hats folk -- chances are nothing will come of it -- but then again, that's probably what they said about that little tremor in Christchurch a few months back.

Friday, February 11, 2011

More amunition to protect Moore's Law

Moore's law looks set to get another boost with the creation of the world's first junctionless transistor by a team of researchers from the Tyndall National Institute.

One of the key aspects of these new transistor devices is there extremely small size, some 20 times smaller than the transistors currently used in computer processor chips.

Along with this massive reduction in size comes a useful 30% reduction in power consumption, these two benefits suggesting we're still long way of seeing an end to the validity of Moore's prediction.

And, as if that wasn't enough, other researchers, this time from Harvard University, have come up with processes which will allow the construction of what they're calling "nano processors".

Although all the nano-processors built to date have been relatively simple by modern standards, the developers claim that they will soon be producing far more complex devices which will also lead to smaller, more energy-efficient and ultimately more powerful appliances and computers.

Of course size isn't the only area where researchers have been busy...

An international team composed of of researchers from UK, Japan, Canada and Germany have successfully created a silicon chip that plays host to 10 billion bits of quantum-entangled information.

Entanglement is one of the cornerstones of quantum computing and offers the promise of computer systems many orders of magnitude more powerful than anything which exists on the planet today.

So sit back and enjoy the ride. Although Moore's prediction that the number of transistors in a computer will double every two years may not be spot-on, advances on the nano and quantum fronts are likely ensure that next year's computer will still be much faster than last years -- for the foreseeable future.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Will the Internet and ebooks kill our libraries?

Amazon has reported that now its sales of ebooks exceed sales of printed books across all categories.

This is a major endorsement of the ebook and a sure sign that its future is assured, despite the fact that so many of us who have grown up with inky stains on dead tree flesh still love the feel and "presence" of the printed volumes.

As a low-cost, energy-efficient form of publication, the ebook is hard to fault and now that a growing variety of readers are available from little more than $100, I suspect that even those most resistant to change will eventually embrace the benefits.

However, there is one area where the ebook may fall short and leave us all wanting.

Take a trip into any town or city and somewhere within its precincts you will find a large building, filled with thousands of books. It is of course, the public library.

For a century or more, the public library has been a free repository of knowledge and entertainment in written form, open to all and containing an amazing array of different titles.

However, the future of the library must now be a little uncertain, in an age where the internet has replaced it as "the" repository of knowledge and where digital rights management (DRM) has effectively destroyed the ability to "lend" ebooks in the same way we currently lend printed versions.

Although some ebook DRM systems allow books to be lent, quite often there are very severe restrictions on that lending -- both in terms of the duration of the loan and the number of times a title can be loaned. In fact, some formats don't allow lending at all -- they consider it a prohibited act within the provisions of the copyright laws.

So... where to from here for lending libraries?

Well they will still exist but I'm thinking that within the next decade or so, they will no longer be the imposing structures that house tens of thousands of printed volumes.

As the ebook continues to grow in popularity and the internet provides us with access to almost all the information and entertainment we could ever dream of, libraries as we know them will fade away -- replaced by something rather different.

Exactly what that "something different" will be -- I'm not sure, and I don't think anyone else knows either.

Do you?