Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Lots of new technology this week isn't quite as it seems, with satellites, Irish priests, PRs and self-induced execution failures under the quizzing glass. And then there's the strange case of the intergalactic doughnut...

Monday 10/7/2006

One of the unexpected side effects of running Ubuntu instead of Windows at work is that I'm having to answer my phone. Our voicemail system has a desktop client interface, and that's Microsoft-only — there's a fighting chance that it will work with the Wine Windows-under-Linux layer, and a better one that it'll work with XP in a virtual box, but this week I am mostly playing with PHP and MySQL so such experiments will have to wait.

Which means that I'm fielding PR calls in real time. It's not a particularly edifying experience. My name must be on the wrong list in a directory somewhere, because I'm getting tons of calls about "my client has just sold a CRM system to Bogco, the leading supplier of bathroom fittings" and the like. I've never written a story about someone winning a contract in my life — unless you count the occasional apoplectic rant concerning yet more state funding for rapacious, incompetent consultants — so why Belinda at Frogspawn Marketing and Sandra at Inyerface Interface have suddenly got the idea that I'm in the market is something of a mystery. Asking "Why are you calling me?" seems a little impolite, but that's never stopped me in the past. The next one who calls touting a security solution sold to the leading Slovenian transport logistics company gets it.

It strikes me that in these days of blogs and insta-pundit publishing, there's nothing to stop the PR companies getting together and doing their own rolling press-release-only magazine for this sort of non-story. You don't need journalists to cut and paste, after all. The publication — let's call it Contract Contact – wouldn't need a business plan as such; the thing would justify its existence by making the clients feel happy and billable, and it might even be genuinely useful after a while as a database of what particular companies have been up to. For those peculiar journalistic animals who do feed on contract stories, it would be a godsend — as it would for anyone who enjoys or needs to read about them, assuming such a thing exists.

Such a publication wouldn't be that different to some of the trade press anyway. All you'd need to do is add white papers from marketing managers of various companies, and you'd be there. No adverts, but then there'd be no need for 'em. No pretence at objectivity either, but what's that got to do with a contract story anyway?

And while we're dallying in the land of press releases, here's a lovely little piece of marketing-speak. EMC has had a bumpy time of it recently: it overestimated demand for one product and underestimated that for another. You or I might call that sort of cock-up a mistake. Not EMC: "This issue was a self-induced execution failure on our part. There is no excuse", said chief executive Joe Tucci. I shall treasure that for the next time I'm being carpeted — "I cannot tell a lie," I shall say. "This issue was a self-induced execution failure. Can I go now?"


Tuesday 11/7/2006

Motorola Semiconductors — oops, sorry, Freescale — has announced a new magnetic memory chip. This is actually quite exciting; magnetic memory has some chance of becoming the much-awaited universal memory technology, which combines the best features of flash, dynamic and static memory designs to work fast, keep its contents when the power goes off and be easy to design into circuits. />

Some chance, just not much. Even assuming that everything Freescale says is true — that the chip is as fast, retentive, reliable and usable as promised — it has one huge and probably insurmountable problem. It costs too much, and it always will.

A 4Mb chip — the biggest you can get – costs $25, which means a single megabyte costs $50. That's thousands of times more expensive per bit than the alternatives, and because the process that makes the chip is considerably more complex than that used for existing memories, it will never be possible to erase the differential completely. More complex chips have lower yields, and the lower the yield the higher the price.

Meanwhile, the existing memory technologies have huge markets, are making massive amounts of money and are being produced in staggeringly efficient ways. The market is carnivorously competitive, so the amount of development money being spent on keeping things that way is immense: it's just not possible to introduce something that's very different and just a bit better.

That's the reason that the last new memory technology to make an impact was Flash, introduced nearly 20 years ago. Even then, that was an adaptation of an existing technology, ultraviolet erasable programmable ROMs. Crucially, Flash did something that no other technology could manage — not just better or easier. These past 20 years have seen intensive research and development in all areas of semiconductors, with thousands of innovations and many discoveries, but nobody's come close to introducing a commercially significant new memory technology.

For MRAM to become a moneyspinner, Freescale has to find an application that it and it alone can do. There are a few — Flash's biggest problem is that it wears out after tens or hundreds of thousands of data writes, and MRAM is a lot more resistant to bit corruption from radiation — but none in the mass market. Not that there's anything wrong with making high-priced boutique circuits for specialist markets, except that it doesn't make you much money.

If I had to bet, I'd say that Freescale will continue to develop MRAM for another year or so while it builds up a portfolio of clients in aerospace and instrumentation, then flog the whole lot as a going concern to a company better set up for low-volume, high-price components. That's if it doesn't go the way of bubble memory — a marvellously weird magnetic chip technology that some company called Intel was enthusiastic about in the early 1980s, and that even found its way into a portable computer or two.

Shame. New cleverness in silicon makes my heart sing. I hope I'm very wrong, and that in five years' time we're MRAM'd to the gills. But I wouldn't put any money on it.


Weds 12/7/2006

My very favourite telecoms regulator is going sane. I had my worries about it earlier this month when it appeared to have a hissy fit over people watching high-definition TV tests, but it's back in the land of the nice now. It's just announced that it wants to make low-power FM transmitters legal to use without a licence, and that it's going to stop bothering to licence CBs as well.

CB remains the forgotten child of the communications revolution, and rightly so. Once a buzzing nest of peculiar people pretending to be American truckers, it's now mostly used by a small number of peculiar people pretending to be London gangsters. When conditions are right, you can hear stuff from thousands of miles away — including, quite bizarrely, another Ofcom experiment in Northern Ireland where it's handed out CB frequencies to parish priests wanting to broadcast services to those stuck at home — but if you choose to ignore the whole sorry business your life will be not one whit the worse.

Low-power FM is a different kettle of bakelite. The sort of devices Ofcom has in mind are gadgets such as the iTrip, a tiny transmitter that plugs into your iPod and lets you tune in on any stereo radio. These have a range of about five metres, but in the eyes of the law they're just as illegal as Radio Caroline. Ridiculous, of course: they're licence-exempt in the US where they do no harm whatsoever. In fact, people have a lot of fun with them — some pioneering types wire them into their cars and put the operating frequency on their back bumper, so the person behind them in the traffic can eavesdrop.

In practice, people have been using these devices for years in the UK without a single prosecution. From the 1970s on, there have been little transmitter kits available from the back pages of a certain class of magazine, and it's a really convenient way to pipe music all over the house. That's even more so now that we get so much of our programming over the Internet via computers; it's difficult to take your laptop into the shower, and even harder to tune the bathroom wireless into WFMU in New Jersey.

All that we need now is a decent remote control to control the audio source from anywhere in the house. Infra-red's no good and Bluetooth doesn't go through walls, so it'll have to be something like Wi-Fi. There are such things, and you can always use a PDA, but nothing that's cheap or robust. This is exactly the sort of application that the Zigbee wireless networking protocol was invented for, but nobody seems to be bothered.

Still, at least we can use our iTrips without fear of six months in the slammer. Who says the golden age of radical law reform is dead?


Thurs 13/7/2006

There are delighted cackles from over the ocean, where Cornell researchers say they've cracked the code for the European Union's new Galileo satellite navigation system. They've certainly cracked something, but it's hard to get too excited about it — while it's true that the Europeans have been keeping that particular code secret and that the Cornell mob had worked out what was going on, it's not true that this has any particular significance for the future of the project.

The code in question is being transmitted by the GIOVE-A experimental satellite as part of the initial testing of Galileo. While the full system will indeed have levels of service accessed through various kinds of encryption – and, like the American GPS system, the lowest level available free to the user — that isn't what's being broadcast at the moment. The only reason it was being kept secret was that we're at the stage in the project where various things are being tried out and, not unreasonably, there's no particular reason to make public exactly what experiments are being done and how. Furthermore, the Cornell findings, while clever, weren't exactly pushing the boundaries: spread-spectrum techniques are well known and documented, and if you know what to look for there's a lot you can find out. Especially when you're dealing with a system that, like Galileo, is designed to interoperate with others.

The real secret about Galileo is "why is it there?". The EU makes a big thing about the business benefits of the system, and indeed there is lots of money to be made through location-based tech, but is curiously unclear about how those benefits will make money come back to the satellite operators themselves. The idea is that you pay for the extra precision of the encrypted signals but, while those are useful for some specialist applications, they do not include the sort of thing that millions of people want. In any case, by combining the free GPS and free Galileo signals, substantial improvements in precision will be available for free.

The answer to the question isn't "to make money", of course. It's "Because it's not run by the American Department of Defense". We're rapidly becoming dependent on GPS for all sorts of essential commercial and practical uses and, while we love and cherish the Americans as friends and allies, the "love many, trust a few, always paddle your own canoe" principle comes into play rather strongly.

Politically, though, you can't say this outright. It's also quite hard to create a European-wide project with significant yearly costs that doesn't have a direct commercial raison d'etre, because it upsets the free market boosters. So you have to get a figleaf from somewhere — but honestly, nobody's going to get too upset if a few American researchers take a peek behind it.


Friday 14/7/2006

It's not often that one gets called into the dock to answer for one's actions concerning intergalactic warfare, sugary doughnuts and Wikipedia. But answer I must.

It all began last week, when Graeme "The Darth Vader Of The Newsroom" Wearden was innocently committing journalism. We get a lot of spam, so he'd already ditched two emails purporting to be from one Flash Sheridan with the subject line "Your source for Doc Smith and powdered doughnuts (re-sent)" – yeah, right – but something about the third made him take a look. It turns out that Flash really exists and really wanted to talk to Graeme, and was getting quite annoyed to boot.

Moreover, Flash is the maintainer of the Wikipedia entry for EE "Doc" Smith, a deceased science-fiction writer who in the 1920s and 1930s single-handedly invented the subgenre of space opera. Doc Smith was noted for his energetic plotting, florid prose and complete lack of literary shame. He was also noted for working for the Dawn Doughnut Company of Jackson, Michigan, as a food chemist and, says the Wikipeida entry, is reported to have come up with the way to make sugar frosting stick.

So far so good. However, Flash Sheridan had found the reference to the sugar doughnuts in an article Graeme Wearden had written back in 2001 about the hot news that London was hosting a show marking 40 years of computer games. Indeed, at the end of the article was the assertion that Smith's "other claim to fame was that he was the first man to invent a method of getting powdered sugar to stick to doughnuts". Intrigued, Wearden checked the Wikipedia entry and saw that his 2001 story was cited in the footnotes. Which is nice — but attached to the footnote was the claim that Graeme Wearden had not provided a source to back up his claims and was not responding to the pleas of the Wikipedia community. That's the problem with Wikipedia, people can just go and put stuff in — and sometimes it's perfectly true. />Dave Langford. He knows everything. He writes SF reference books. He's a thoroughly nice chap. He and a few friends soon chased the story back to at least the early 1970s — "when I wasn't even alive", chortled Wearden — so we can satisfy the demands of the Wiki hive mind with honour intact.

But after a whinge about the awfulness of this accusation ("How can it be right that people can just write things like that and post them on the Internet?" "Well, Graeme, you know this job you've been doing for six years?"), Wearden hit on a new plan. He'd blame me.

"You must have edited it, Goodwins," he said. "I wouldn't know anything about science-fiction trivia, and you're full of it."

"Pardon?" I said. "Just because I know the significance of the line 'Who put the tribbles in the quadrotriticale' and the name of Philip K Dick's cat, that's no reason to pin the rap on me, copper."

"Yes it is," he pointed out, not unreasonably. I hate it when he's right.

I was at a loss — did I really know that about doughnuts? — but fortunately I have a secret weapon at my disposal; a time machine called Cix. This ancient online-conferencing system is still going and still shields a few communities of old-timers from the ravages of the Web. In particular, the science-fiction conference holds some practitioners of the art, most usefully for my purposes, the very venerable practioners.

These things are important.

And now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to listen to Astronomy Domine quite a lot, in memory of another lost spaceman I recommend you do the same.