Friday, April 29, 2011

Royal couple put the Net to the test

When I read predictions that the royal wedding of Prince William and his bride had the potential to bring the internet to its knees, I laughed.

Ever now and then you read similar predictions that certain events, bound to create large volumes of traffic, will cripple the Net and inevitably they turn out to be false-alarms.

Well, as I type this now (8:20pm on Friday April 29th, 2011), I find that the BBC website in the UK is no longer answering to browser requests in a sane fashion. Instead of the pages I expected to find, all I get is a blank white page -- not even an error message.

For a moment, I thought that the forecasters of a Net-meltdown may have been right this time. However, I see that other UK-based websites seem to still be a live and well so perhaps it's only the Beeb's site that is crumbling under the strain of millions of people trying to catch up on the nuptials via the Net.

One of the other most hammered sites during the ceremony will no doubt be YouTube, who have organised a live feed to be streamed from its servers. Right now (with just 38 minutes to go), YouTube's systems are still working and responsive. I wonder what will happen in just over half an hour's time?

I'm picking that everything will work just fine and that once again, predictions of the internet's inevitable failure will have been grossly overstated.

That of course, will be a good thing, since we are increasingly turning to the Net as our first-port of call whenever breaking news occurs, or whenever disaster requires us to rapidly access important information.

While I'm not someone who's going to stay up into the wee small hours watching the royal couple get hitched, it would appear that tens or hundreds of millions of other folk all over the world will do just that. If the Net can survive this onslaught of traffic then I think it'll have no problem handling lesser challenges to its capacity or resilience.

Most folk will see the royal wedding as just a couple of lucky people getting married. I see it as a great chance to make sure the Net is working under heavy load in a way that would be hard to duplicate any other way.

Kind of nice of the Royals to help out in this way, don't you think?

Friday, April 22, 2011

More cool technology to improve our cars

Although its basic design concept has remained unchanged for over a century, the internal combustion engine has seen dramatic improvements in performance and efficiency in the past few decades, mainly due to the use of clever technology.

Computer-based engine management systems allow for ultra-accurate fuel injection and miniscule adjustments to ignition timing to provide a level of performance and reliability previously unheard of. In fact, today's vehicles are almost twice as fuel-efficient as those of 50 years ago and frequently deliver more than 200,000Kms of relatively trouble-free driving.

Despite the massive sums of money being poured into alternatives such as electric vehicles, the good old internal combustion engine still rules the roads, and looks set to continue doing so for at least a few more decades -- and now there's a new piece of hi-tech that looks set further improve its performance and reliability: the laser.

A team of Japanese researchers have come up with the idea of replacing the relatively crude spark-based ignition mechanism used in all petrol/gasoline engines with a laser.

They claim that lasers offer many advantages over the old coil and spark-plug approach -- including more precise ignition timing and more effective ignition.

The concept is that if a sufficiently powerful beam of laser-light passes through the compressed air/fuel mixture in the combustion chamber, ignition will occur. By using a lens to focus the laser, the point of ignition can be shifted to any point within the mixture rather than simply at the tip of an electrode.

Of course a fairly powerful laser is required to generate the necessary temperatures to produce ignition but thanks to significant advances in the areas of things such as ceramic lasers, this is no longer a problem. Each cylinder could be fitted with its own 9mm ceramic laser or a central laser could feed its light into the individual combustion chambers by way of fibre-optic cable, the distributor being replaced by a rotating mirror.

The researchers are claiming that because there is no spark-plug electrode to erode under the effects of constant arcing and high combustion temperatures, the laser system should allow for longer service intervals and improved reliability. They also believe that the creation of multiple ignition points within the cylinder could also improve fuel efficiency.

Every time you think the internal combustion engine is reaching its "best-by date", someone turns around and makes it just a little better and a little more efficient.

I wonder if we'll ever see the end of pistons, crankshafts, bearings and rings in our lifetime?

Friday, April 15, 2011

The IPV4 well runs dry sooner than thought

When the internet was first designed it was inconceivable that it would connect to so many devices and computers that its massive 2^32 addresses would ever be exhausted.

Using a simple format nnn.nnn.nnn.nnn enabled administrators to give every machine, router switch or other device on the Net its own unique address -- and this worked perfectly well for decades.

However, nobody counted on the Net becoming as ubiquitous as it has so now we find ourselves running short of addresses and having to switch to a new numbering (IPV6) system with 2^128 addresses.

The problem with switching from IPV4 to IPV6 is that everybody seems to be putting off the expensive, complex and time-consuming task until the very last minute.

Well, at least for the Asia Pacific region, that minute is here, right now, earlier than predicted.

This rather unexpected announcement will force the hand of those building new networks or extending existing ones on the presumption that they could obtain extra extra IPV4 blocks.

Even those businesses that have had the foresight to invest in IPV6 networks are still facing problems as, according to media reports, few ISPs in the region are ready and able to deliver an IPV6 connection and allocate IPV6 addresses to their clients.

Officials are hoping that the unexpected speed with which the IPV4 blocks have been depleted in the Asia Pacific region will catalyze US companies and service providers into ramping up their own transitions to IPV6. It was expected that there would be sufficient blocks available to last into 2012 but now predictions are suggesting that the global supply will have dried up before the end of 2011.

I wonder if we'll start seeing error messages on our screens which say "Sorry, the internet is full, please try again later".

And before you think to yourself - "well at least we'll never run out of addresses with 2^128 numbers available" - stop and think about it. I would not be quite so confident. After all, there was a time when a few informed industry leaders thought that 640K of RAM would be sufficient for any computer. And, a few decades before that, an IBM big-wig pronounced that the world would probably only ever need a handful of computers.

In the world of computers, even the biggest numbers become very small, very quickly.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Back to the future for home computers?

Reports published this week indicate that Commodore are re-releasing one of the most popular home computers of all time - the C64.

Well it's not actually the old C64 that so many people loved so much back in the 1980s. No, it's a Windows-based system that comes in a C64-like case, so the similarities are pretty much just cosmetic.

However, if you're hell-bent on playing those games of old that used to hold your attention for hours on the original C64 you'll be pleased to know that it does come with an emulator that should support most of those old titles (if you can find them in any kind of readable format).

I'm predicting that this may be the start of a "retro trend" in computing hardware and we'll see a few more "flashback" designs released over the coming 12 months.

After all, who wouldn't want their very own Commodore PET -- but this time with a quad-core processor, a few gigs of RAM and a terabyte of hard-drive instead of that frustratingly unreliable built-in cassette system?

And who knows -- maybe a faux ZX81 will be the next big thing after the iPad -- stranger things have happened.

While on the subject of retro, I see that at least two companies are now selling mobile phones that look just like the old beige Motorola Bricks of the 1980s -- albeit with all the modern features you'd expect in a contemporary model.

Old is the new black apparently!

Of course, given the huge advances in ergonomics and miniaturisation, this retro phase is likely to be little more than a passing fad. Why clutter your desk with a huge "all in one" facsimile of a Commodore PET when you can get several times the power from a modern netbook which is a fraction the size and weight?

Still, for those who feel the need, the range of retro-tech devices will likely continue to expand in coming months, as manufacturers seek to cash in on the trend.

What a shame my favourite style (art deco) is from an era before the invention of the computer.

Steam-punk PC anyone?

Maybe Weta Workshops could do a roaring trade in designing the physical appearance of the next Apple computer?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Piracy a boon to purveyors of bad music and movies

There was a time when the combination of good stories, great scripts and well-recognised actors would guarantee huge box-office profits for movie companies.

Back in those halcyon days, movies were part of our culture and "a night at the flicks" was part of everyone's weekly routine.

Of course new technologies came along and somewhat changed the entertainment scene.

Instead of dressing up and taking in a movie on a Saturday evening, people opted instead to stay at home and watch this new-fangled television box that now sat in the corner of the living room. Movie stars were replaced by TV stars and the whole movie industry struck a rather rough patch.

Of course there was a problem with TV -- you could only watch what the broadcasters were screening at any given time.

This problem was soon solved however, in the form of the VCR and later, the DVD and PVR.

Today, people can watch whatever movies they choose at a time which best suits their busy schedules. Indeed, DVD sales now exceed box-office returns for many movies, with a good percentage of movies "going straight to disk" rather than even trying to content for a slice of the fickle theatre-going public's purse.

Of course the industry does argue that the internet and resulting piracy is now killing it.

Instead of paying to legally purchase or rent a DVD, people are simply downloading entire movies from P2P networks on the internet and thus depriving the lawful copyright owners of their entitlements -- at least that's the story.

Now while it may be true that the profits some movies might have made are being raped by the users of P2P networks, the real block-busters still seem to be doing "very nicely thank you" -- and the bad movies were never going to make a dollar anyway.

Yet, strangely enough, the internet, piracy and P2P networks may actually be the salvation of the B-grade movie industry, at least if the lawyers have their way.

In the USA right now, the producers of one such B-grade movie are attempting to turn their lacklustre title into a big money-winner, and here's how they're doing it.

Investigators have rounded up a long list of IP numbers that they allege represent just some of the internet users who have downloaded this movie illegally.

Around 6,000 downloads have been logged and identified, a number which could represent a total of over US$850m in damages, should a successful prosecution and full damages be awarded for each infringement.

According to reviews, this movie "Nude Nuns with Big Guns" is nothing to write home about and it's very unlikely it would have made even a tiny percentage of that money if it had been reliant on legal sales and ticket receipts. However, with the maximum penalty for an illegal movie download being around US$150,000 per incident, the potential returns from having your product pirated then successfully prosecuting the downloaders would seem to far exceed anything that could have been hoped for by way of legitimate, legal sales.

If, like some of the other prosecutions, the producer of the movie in question choose to offer defendants a "deal" for settling out of court they still stand to reap big revenues. Lawyers
acting for producers of the Hollywood blockbuster The Hurt Locker recently offered such a deal to those caught illegally downloading that film. Instead of facing a fine of as much as $150K, they were offered the chance to "settle" for $2,900. In the case of Naked Nuns with Big Guns, that'd still net the producers almost $17 million.

One can't help but wonder how long it will be before the producers of B-grade movies are being smart enough to seed the P2P networks with copies of their movies in the hope that they'll be downloaded by enough people to make legal action not only worthwhile but highly profitable.

Look -- a new business model has been invented!