Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Showdown on the wild wild web?

For a long time, the internet was a pretty lawless place.

Files containing all manner of copyrighted and sometimes illegal information was swapped with impunity -- simply because the Net operated beneath the radar of "the powers that be".

Those who used the internet were geeks or academics who were of little importance or interest to lawmakers and enforcers. Nobody much cared what a spotty-faced teen did in the small hours of the night while locked up in their dingy rooms, washing down pizzas with copious volumes of Coca Cola to the flickering light of a computer screen.

Of course that's all changed now.

Net-connected PCs are ubiquitous, most homes having several and very few businesses capable of surviving without such a tool.

As a result, the Net and those who use it are very much in the spotlight -- the target of much surveillance by police, intelligence and other agencies, quietly watching for signs of "offending".

This surveillance has been helped along by generous "lobbying" from the creative industries who see their copyrights being treated with contempt by armies of consumers who feel they have a right to trade music and movie files online.

Then there are the reactionary hackers who choose to engage in cyber-attacks against any individual, government or corporation that they feel is acting unjustly. Anonymous is perhaps the highest profile of these groups -- and "the powers that be" are now acting very swiftly to try and crush this movement.

According to recent media reports, Interpol has just arrested 25 alleged members of the Anonymous group in the wake of recent attacks against US Government agencies -- mainly in protest of the arrest of Kim Dotcom.

The majority of the suspects were from Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Spain -- where agents also seized phones, computers and cash.

It strikes me that we're rapidly reaching a point were full-blown war is about to break out.

A massive army of young people with plenty of time on their hands and who are intensely irritated at the authoritarian clamp-down on what they see are their "rights" while online may soon become a might adversary for law-enforcement agencies.

If they thought that Anonymous was a problem, wait until these clever, time-rich kids start organising themselves (using the net as a communications medium) to really create trouble.

Unless efforts are taken to defuse this looming conflict, I suspect that there's a good chance everyone will suffer the fallout.

As key systems and services are attacked by the youth forces I have no doubt that authorities will seek to clamp down even further on internet freedoms -- thus aggravating the situation. Eventually we (the regular Net users) may find that the speed and reliability of the Net is compromised by the fallout from this war.

Perhaps it will result in a global "internet licensing" scheme, whereby all those wishing to access the Net will have to authenticate their true identity before being allowed through the door to cyberspace.

Maybe it will simply be that the levels of surveillance and the number of DOS attacks brings the Net to a crawl -- ankle-tapping legitimate traffic in the process.

Of course it might be that I'm just in a pessimistic mood and looking at the worst possible outcome for a situation that could perhaps resolve itself without a drop of cyberblood being spilled.

But somehow, I don't think so.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Shedding light on energy-efficient electronics

There are two items of consumer electronics that I have owned for over 20 years and I don't intend parting with either of them any-time soon.

They are incredibly useful devices which, despite the fact that most electronic gadgets are usually replaced at ever-shorter intervals, remain as useful today as they were when I first purchased them.

In fact, they have one key feature that few of their contemporary equivalents offer.

They're both solar-powered.

I'm talking about my Casio FX-115 scientific calculator and a small AM/FM radio.

The really great thing about these devices is that I've never had to replace a battery in either of them, despite their many long years of faithful service. I shudder to think how much rubbish and potential pollution this ability to recharge themselves from ambient lighting has eliminated.

Other radios that I have tend to need new batteries at very regular intervals and even rechargeable technologies such as NiMH cells don't completely eliminate the need for periodic replacement. The AA-sized NiMH cells I purchased about seven years ago are already reaching the end of their useful life, holding only a quarter of their rated capacity these days.

Yet, my calculator and solar-powered radio just keep on working.

Some years ago, I predicted that with advances in low-power electronics and more efficient solar cells, we'd eventually see an increasing percentage of electronic devices that were powered by the ambient light in which they are usually found. Unfortunately, this hasn't happened as quickly as I'd hoped -- but...

Intel have announced that their own experimentation into solar-powered processors and memory is delivering very encouraging results.

Although far from being ready for commercial production, the semiconductor giant has also twigged to the potential for modern devices to be self-powered to some degree, if not totally.

With this in mind, Intel intends to demonstrate its "Claremont" concept processor at a conference in San Francisco next week.

While not designed for full-speed operation when powered solely by its inbuilt solar cell, the processor has a "near threshold voltage" (NTV) CPU which can retain its state and even idle along at much lower speeds -- without the need for external power.

The company claims that by entering this near-hibernation state, laptops and other computers could "suspend" operations without drawing power from the main battery.

However, I expect bigger things from this technology and I have no doubt that before too long, many tablet computers will boast an integrated display, touchscreen, solar panel -- all rolled into one. They will recharge themselves from ambient light when not actually in use and the output of the screen/panel will further extend the length of time they can operate without recourse to a conventional power source.

Look for most other bits of electronic kit to also boast solar cells -- even if only to eliminate the insidious (but not insignificant) cost of "phantom drain" -- such as that used by TV sets, DVD players and other items when turned off via their remote control units. And of course, those remotes will also never need new batteries - because they'll also be solar powered -- taking advantage of ambient and artificial lighting to keep their batteries or supercaps fully charged.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Small is beautiful (finally)

I recall that when I first got into computing, way back in the late 1970s as a result of the invention of the microprocessor, mainframes were "the" computers de jour.

Even once the early 1980s rolled around, "real" data-processing professionals such as systems analysts, programmers and even data-entry personnel looked down on these "toys" as if they weren't really computers at all.

To be fair, a lot of the early 8-bit micros were pretty crude and wimpy -- with their blocky graphics, hard to read characters, reliance on low-quality monitors and rather nasty keyboards.

What's more, many had barely 48Kbytes of RAM and most relied on floppy disks rather than "serious" storage media.

But my, how time has changed things.

These days, the micro is king and it is the mainframe that is looked at with scorn and derision from some quarters.

Today's microcomputers have far more power than many of the mainframes that were so wonderful just a couple of decades ago -- and they also use much sexier languages, user-interfaces and software.

Although -- somewhat surprisingly, I'm told that mainframe Cobol programmers are still in demand, the big demand now is for those skilled in microcomputer architecture, software and systems. Except for very large enterprise and some scientific applications, the mainframe looks to be headed the way of the Dodo.

Who, apart from a few smarty-pants young upstarts like myself, would have dreamed all those years ago that all that iron would be replaced with a few beige boxes and some network cable.

That's just one of the reasons that I love technology -- anything is possible.

And just what prompted this column?

Well it was NASA's announcement that they have just unplugged their last mainframe computer.

Who'd have thought?