Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Culture battles cash, AMD versus Intel, Ofcom fights boredom, and how to make a computer out of a time machine. Another week in IT comes to its inconclusive end

Monday 21/11/2005

I'm writing this from the mean streets of Edinburgh, where I'm spending a long weekend. The flat I'm staying in is in Tollcross, one of the 'Burgh's livelier areas with the infamous Pubic Triangle red-light district at one end and the road to prim and proper Morningside at the other. The Cameo cinema is exactly opposite: one of Scotland's most famous and ancient art house theatres, it has a huge reputation and a constant stream of excellent movies. There is a lot of gentrification underway in the area, but what better draw could there be for hip young urbanites than somewhere so dripping in kudos that Tarantino chose it for Pulp Fiction's debut?

A superpub, that's what. Like many art cinemas in the UK, the Cameo is owned by a group called City Screen, which until now has had a great reputation for taking on and looking after these cultural gems. Now, though, the company has asked for planning permission to turn the main screen into a restaurant and bar, together with a load of other changes that the cinema's supporters claim would utterly ruin the place. Moreover, City Screen says that if it doesn't get its way, it'll sell the place to people who'll turn it into a carpet shop — and that it's all the fault of the cinema's supporters for making such a fuss.

Uh, what? This is like the Archbishop of Canterbury suggesting Lambeth Cathedral would do better as a pizza shop — you can always move the altar to a Portakabin, after all. What brought about this change of heart?

Google knows. Google knows everything. In 2002, an outfit called Arts Alliance Media bought a majority shareholding in City Screen. AAM is an interesting bunch: it is running a major digital cinema rollout for the UK Film Council, it runs a DVD rental company and provides "business services" to its portfolio companies. It's goal is to "impact the distribution and exhibition parts of the value-chain by creating and enabling channels for efficient, targeted marketing and product delivery" and much more of the same. It's very closely related to another venture capital company, Arts Alliance, which has fingers in zillions of pies. Online property services, wine selling, one-stop baby shopping, CRM providers, and much more make it quite a diverse business, and quite an aggressive one at that.

Whatever's going on with City Screen is happening at the behest of Arts Alliance, and that will be whatever fits in with its exit plan. The modus operandi of VC firms is to get in, reshape an organisation, do whatever deals look good for other companies in the portfolio, then set up an exit strategy that maximises the return on investment. I know, I've worked for publishers where investors have done exactly that — and what happened was absolutely nothing to do with publishing.

The good thing these days is that anyone can break through the initial layers of front companies and dig down to what's actually happening: the bad news is that so few people do it. Meanwhile, the Cameo is attracting fierce support from across the board; I do wonder if that features on the Arts Alliance spreadsheet or not.

Tuesday 22/11/2005

Back in London, I see Graeme Wearden giggling at his desk. It's a bit too early for his customary blast of nitrous oxide, so I had to ask him what was going on. "Ofcom!" he said. "Made idiots of themselves again!"

"Just type here", I said, sliding over a laptop and seeing the chance to slip off for a quick sharpener…

"It was the Broadband Britain Summit at the QE2 centre on Monday." Graeme wrote. "We'd already had the DTI guy celebrating botnets, when the time came for Ed Richard's keynote. He's the chief operating officer of Ofcom, and as big a wig as you see outside the High Court. So, our master of ceremonies Declan Curry (of the BBC) calls for Richards. Nothing happens. "Ah..." said Declan. "Mr Richards, are you there?" Silence. A few titters. "Is there anyone from Ofcom?". Silence. "He is in the building", volunteers one person. "Ah, OK, perhaps someone could go and tell him that the room with all the people is where he's meant to be". Giggles. "Well, you never know with these watchdogs. They're often too clever to spot the obvious". So, we all wait.

So Declan says. "While we're waiting, let's have a show of hands. Who here knows what Ofcom does". Hands go up all round the room. "Who thinks Ofcom is doing a good job". A smattering of hands. More waiting.

Then, with a bang, in strides Ed Richards. He marches to the front and, without a sniff of an apology for keeping 200 people waiting, launches into his speech. You'd think he was the headmaster of a school — but it can't be arrogance. Hey, this bloke works for Ofcom, the champion of the citizen-consumer, and used to work on policy in Number 10, a place where humility is a way of life. So I sit there, for a speech talking about how well Broadband Britain has performed since Ofcom came into being a few years ago (no mention of BT's price cuts, or rural activists, or media pressure).

We move onto the challenges of the digital divide still existing (no suggestion that it's Ofcom's fault. hey, they've only just got here). But maybe the increased take-up of digital and IP TV will help, he says. Then, as Richards is mid-flow, he stops. Someone is waving at him. No, it's not some awestruck fan seeking an autograph, but Declan. "Sorry, but could you wind it up in the next 60 seconds?". Richards looks like he's been told to pencil a moustache onto a photo of Tony Blair. "Well. That will be very difficult." He said, shuffling copious notes. The Ofcom sermon clearly had some way to run.

"Well, give it a go" responded Declan. Richards isn't easily stopped, though — he embarks on a long monologue about public-private partnership in the telecoms space, the challenge of DRM, and then — as suspense grows in the hall that Declan might swing onto the stage upon a vine and bundle Richards clean from the building — the man from Ofcom gives us a rundown about the forthcoming disposal of the analogue TV spectrum. And then he stopped — to applause that I noted down at the time as "cool". "

"Cool?" I asked, returning from my reviving break.

"The clicking of pens was loud during that last sixty seconds that he spun on for five minutes."

"They'll probably regulate against that sort of thing, pre-watershed" I suggested.

"Ofcom, eh?"


Wednesday 23/11/2005

No problem whatsoever today in pointing you at a story in The Register, where Ashlee Vance has been pounding the carpet at the SuperComputing 2005 show. Lots of good stuff, but the star of the show was the Opteron. Then came the Itanium, then the Xeon. Not that anyone's talking much about the Xeon.

This is really bad news for Intel, which remains so keen to assure us that everyone loves the Itanium that any remotely negative comment from us guarantees a patient missive explaining that sales are up, excitement is building and it's only us naysayers in the press who refuse to believe it.

I can't speak for anyone else in the business, but I'd much rather have Itanium do well than otherwise. I remain a geek at heart and nothing pleases me more than to see something different take on a vigorous life of its own. There are too many x86 processors in the world — please don't let it be that forever. What's not to love with a fabulous new technology doing all sorts of clever things?

The market, that's what. It's clear that in terms of cost-effective performance, you get more for your money with lots of relatively cheap x86s than with fewer more expensive Itaniums — provided the rest of the architecture is in place, can handle fast memory and IO, and has good software support. On all these counts, Opteron wins — not only over the Itanium but the Xeon.

Exotica — and here one must include the Itanium — is a very high risk strategy for number crunching. Seymour Cray bet the farm on gallium arsenide being so much faster than silicon that it would give him an unbeatable advantage in supercomputer technologies, despite the fact it cost a great deal more to manufacture. The farm was toast. Silicon wasn't as good, but it was good enough.

The processor market is powered entirely by size: if you can make a million of something where your competition is making a thousand, the advantages are all yours. Without a mass market for the Itanium architecture, its stately prow will disappear under a sea of cheap Opterons. Supercomputer 05 is merely the latest high water mark.

Thursday 24/11/2005

SETI@Home was fun, but we didn't catch any aliens. The project is now being moved from its custom client to BOINC, a new distributed computing architecture that lets you pick a variety of projects and assign priorities to them. Meanwhile, IBM and others are getting together to do AIDS research on its World Community grid, run on much the same lines.

All this is fine, but many people quail at the idea of running other people's software on their computers. It uses power and introduces security problems. Ideally, you'd want the grid software to run in its own little virtual world where it had no access to anything other than CPU — or if it did, then it was heavily managed — and where its power use could be metered. That way, a user — or even a corporation — could build up credits which could be spent buying CPU time on the grid if they needed it, or for other services.

It could also establish a market in energy. IT takes up an increasing proportion of industrial and consumer electrical consumption, which means it can be used for load balancing. Every electrical generation and distribution system suffers from daily variation, where it has to be capable of supplying peak demand but efficient at lower levels. It's much easier to build an efficient system that has a constant load — that's the idea behind Economy 7 and the like, where people are encouraged to use power during low-demand periods to even out the peaks.

With energy-conscious computing connected to a grid, a server could be aware on a minute by minute basis where the most attractive place on the planet for processing was, and could cut back on its own power requirements during local peaks by sending off its processing to be done somewhere where demand was otherwise low.

It could be a lot more important than that. With the latest data from environmental scientists saying that we may be much closer to the point of no return than we thought, where various feedback systems take over and the world changes at catastrophic speed. At this point, we stop shaping the climate and it starts to shape us. The global economy will have to change dramatically, and how easy or hard this is for us will depend on how well we can model what's happening to the point we can predict what's up next.

I can think of no way of modelling environmental change accurately that doesn't involve a great deal of distributed processing linked to local sensors and other systems — nor an efficient way of managing an energy-poor economy than lots of local control over who's using what. Grid computing will be absolutely key to that, and our initial experiments show we need to take it very seriously.

Friday 25/11/2005

Much as astronomers build new and ever more powerful telescopes to push into the darkness at the edge of science, I must adjust my own perceptions of ridiculousness to cope with this week's news.

For a start, there's Dr Richard Carrigan, a particle physicist from the Fermi labs in the US. Particle physicists are a peculiar breed, but he sounds something special. He's decided that there is a Great Danger for All Mankind in SETI@Home, because those signals we're all decoding might contains some evil virus that will trash the world's networks. Thus, he wants people who write SETI software to include a firewall to check for this before attempting to descramble the data.

I have never heard such woofery in all my puff. First, the stuff is just data. You can't execute it. You can only scan it and look for patterns. Second, how on earth are you going to look for an alien virus without, well, scanning it and looking for patterns? Finally, what are the chances of any malicious alien deciding that the best thing to do to Planet Earth is to infect our PCs — instead of, oh, blowing us up or steering an asteroid at us or making us think that converting our entire global hydrocarbon stocks to gaseous carbon dioxide is a good idea?

Then there's BreathCapture.Com — which, as far as I can ascertain, is a small jar you get someone to breathe into and then keep. It's being patented, of course.

And finally, there's time travel as a type of quantum computation. This is based on physics that allows for time travel into the past and back again without breaking the rules of causality or faster-than-light communication through something called a closed timelike curve. A report on Rod van Meter's blog has many, many more details than I can possibly understand, including great throw-away lines like "Teleportation using time displaced entanglement appears equivalent to a stochastic time machine. These experiments are hard, but not too hard."

The best bit about that last one is that it might actually work: quantum computing is going through a growth spurt where new ideas are appearing so fast that by the time you've spotted a problem with one, it's obsolete anyway. Now, all I have to do is work out how to entangle this text with a quantum particle so I can relativistically accelerate it back to lunchtime, and I can spend the rest of the afternoon in the pub instead of writing it.