Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Odd things in the air in Holloway and something fishy in Dublin? Rupert and his robot nose get to work
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 21/8/2006

Wandering down the Holloway Road, I spot a WiMax mesh network node clipped to the top of a lamppost, with what looks like a colinear WiMax whip dangling from its bottom. The astute will immediately deduce three things from this: the Holloway Road has acquired some new infrastructure, I'm the sort of person who goes around looking at street furniture (doubtless a prelude to getting arrested for suspicious behaviour), and I really should get out more.

In my defence, the nodes in question are very recognisable — not for nothing are they known as beer kegs in the trade, although with the stubby white whip hanging off, the one on the Holloway Road looked more like an obscenely fat spermatozoan.

Nonetheless, I whipped out my portable Wi-Fi hot spot finder and did a quick scan. The thing appeared to be called Streetnet, and wasn't locked. Once in the office, Google revealed it to be part of Islington Council's Technology Mile — a council-funded, public access system done just because they can. The WiMax mesh is the backhaul connecting the Wi-Fi hot spots to the Internet, I imagine via a gateway in the town hall. Further digging shows that the Holloway Road segment was added quite recently to an older one on Upper Street. Upper Street — for people who don't know the sociogeography of North London — is best described as the centre of all that Islington is known for. Fashionistas disport with media luvvies outside tarribly nice little exotic cafes: it's all very nice, but I feel rather put out when I read that the Holloway Road extension is being trumpeted as building 21st century infrastructure for disadvantaged areas. Disadvantaged? Us? Honestly.

I shall have to spend some time in the Hercules, the Old King's Head, the Hobgoblin and the other fine pubs along the Technology Mile, rigorously profiling the throughput and latency characteristics of the network. Unfortunately, my own flat is disadvantaged enough to be set back from the Holloway Road by a hundred yards and I can't get a sniff of it: however, it's a good enough reason to get a Wi-Fi VoIP phone for when I'm out shopping or merely hanging with my bros on the street corner, dissin' the cops and hustling for a dime. As us disadvantaged types tend to do, you understand.

This is the sort of thing — the municipal network, not the dime-hustling — which is causing enormous upset in America, where the telephone companies and ISPs are fighting tooth and claw to prevent local government from installing similar systems. Nobody seems to mind here, and nobody's suggesting that it will lead to the end of civilisation as we know it. Even if StreetNet was available through my front window, I wouldn't cancel my personal broadband, and the idea that some schoolkid can pick up a 50 quid second-hand computer from the market and be online for nowt is pleasing indeed.


Tuesday 22/8/2006

Fancy a next-generation gaming console, but holding back because it's too self-indulgent? Getting excited by the idea of a Sony PS3, but can't see how to justify splurging scarce cash on something that's utterly without redeeming social importance? Family making unreasonable requests to eat and be clothed?

We have the answer. Stop thinking about the PS3 as some dull old box of pixel-bashing chips designed to seduce you with colourful fantasies of power and exploration. Instead, look at the specifications. The Cell processor at the heart of the Sony is in fact a group of high-performance cores that between them can theoretically churn away at a tightly-defined task at up to 100 billion instructions per second. Of course, that sort of peak power could only be obtained doing something highly parallel — which means something scientific or technical. Like protein folding.

Protein folding involves computer models of how proteins — which we know about — fold into their operational configuration, which we don't know about. This involves immense processing: what a protein can do in a microsecond can take a single computer 30 years to calculate. Which is where Folding@Home comes in — a distributed computing project from Stanford University that uses volunteer PCs donating spare time over the Net to get the calculations done in a fraction of the time. In the six years it's been running, it has generated a scad of scientific papers and real results directly relating to nanotechnology, cancer studies and more.

And now they're putting it in the PS3. With just 10,000 connected together over the Internet, they say, they'll have a petaflop of processing power. That's considerably more than the fastest supercomputer on the planet — and as they've already got 200,000 ordinary PCs connected, they have high hopes of getting well past that level.

As they say, "Our goal is to apply this new technology to push Folding@Home into a new level of capabilities, applying our simulations to further study of protein folding and related diseases, including Alzheimer’s Disease, Huntington's Disease, and certain forms of cancer. With these computational advances, coupled with new simulation methodologies to harness the new techniques, we will be able to address questions previously considered impossible to tackle computationally, and make even greater impacts on our knowledge of folding and folding-related diseases. "

All this from a games console? No, not a games console. It's a node on the world's most powerful medical research computer, performing indispensable work in an irreplaceable way. You owe it to the world to take part. If you buy a PS3 and hook it up, there will be people walking on the planet in the years to come who'd be dead otherwise.

Point out to your children as they point mutely to their bare feet and rag-clothed, hunger-distended stomachs, that you're doing it to build a better world for them and their children, and that no gain comes without sacrifice. You can also point out that even when it's running full tilt at folding, the PS3 client has enough grunt left over to do some absolutely spiffy educational graphics showing what's going on.

How noble can one person be?


Wednesday 23/8/2006

With the exception of certain Linux fans, smell has yet to feature strongly in the world of IT. The eyes and ears are catered for superbly, with high-resolution moving graphics and synthesised audio getting closer to reality every day. Touch has its place too, with a steady stream of haptic devices appearing to stimulate and utilise our micron-sensitive fingertips

But smell and its somewhat moister cousin taste? It has a certain crude role to play in diagnosing dead hardware — most engineers are more than familiar with the delicate savour of a scorched resistor, or the pungent pong of an overcooked plastic-packed chip. And anyone who's ever enjoyed the full-on rotten-fish stench of an exploded electrolytic capacitor will know just how powerfully that particular sense can be engaged by electronics.

Yet as an interface, it's been fallow ground. No longer. Down in the depths of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, the Nakamoto Labs have invented a device that can not only produce computer-generated smells but can record and analyse ambient scents as well. It's a full-on odour recorder.

Actually, it's not that full on — it can only work for fruit, and only three fruit at that: orange, apple and banana. But it's the principle of the thing that's exciting: it breaks down mixtures of airborne chemicals by passing them over a nanotech silicon chip with individual molecule receptors, then stores what it finds in a database. Later, that data is used to run a mixing machine that takes nine base compounds and carefully mixes them together to create a simulation of the original smell.

There are major problems before this becomes a general-purpose device. The second biggest is that nobody actually knows how we smell things. We have a few hundred different smell receptors, but how they're triggered by the appropriate molecules — and how that information is then turned into our perception of smells — is still a matter of great debate. It may be possible to synthesise many smells from a small palette of base compounds, or it may need thousands of individual drops of gunk to work.

The biggest, though, is why on earth would you want to? It's a nice thought — briefly — to imagine having your home filled with the scent of a lavender field at dusk, or a tropical forest in bloom. We've all been places where we've been surprised and delighted by smell, as well as had memories forcefully triggered by some half-remembered whiff. But it's not something you need built into your laptop.

I'll only be impressed when we get past the idea of mixing molecules together and get onto proper by-atom synthesis. When we can draw what we want on the screen and have it pop out of the output port seconds later, then we'll be getting somewhere. I'm not sure it'll be used to sythesise Chanel No 5 — but it will create a hell of a stink.


Thursday 24/8/2006

It's bad form in journalism to criticise a colleague's work in public. It's pretty bad form to do so to their face in private; in fact, the only acceptable forum is with a mutual friend in the pub after work, providing the object of your disdain is absent.

Which is why I'm going to be breaking a taboo when I say here and now to Charles Mclellan, reviews maestro and indispensable long-term cog in the ZDNet Machinery of Joy, "What the hell were you thinking, man?"

His sin — there is no lighter word — was to publish a positive review of one of the most misbegotten bits of hardware I have ever had the displeasure of reading about, the Logitech VX Revolution.

This rancid rodent costs 60 quid — 60 quid! — and is a computer mouse. There is only one rule for mice: inasmuch as it doesn't hinder their operation, keep them as simple as possible. The best mice have a single button: you move them about, the cursor tracks on the screen, you reach your desired action, you click. That's it. Simplicity breeds reliability: your mouse, as all your computing equipment, should work without fuss forever.

Needless to say, the VX Revolution has no time for such nonsense. No: it has seven controls. It has a laser. It even has a motor to turn the scroll wheel for you, so you can whizz through long documents at speed. It looks like a Klingon battle cruiser designed by Lamborghini. It is wireless.

The review comments favourably on all this, and also gives extra points because it's got a battery meter. A battery meter on a mouse — and this is a good thing? Why should a mouse have a battery meter? Why should it have a battery? It's a MOUSE. A battery meter is a shameful sign of defeat, a stigmatum, a guarantee of trouble and strife to come where there should be — is, for most people — none.

As for the motorised scroll wheel: you see that huge spreadsheet in front of you? You see that nice scroll bar to the right, with a little box at the top? Move mouse to box. Hold mouse button down. Move mouse to bottom. Release button. Done. No motors.

Ah yes, the laser. Why has a mouse got a laser? There is no reason for your mouse to have a laser. Optical mice are better than mechanical ones — true enough. Some surfaces don't work well with optical mice — also true. A laser mouse will work there — perhaps. Or perhaps you can make an ordinary optical mouse work there too. In any case, since you're not working on an optically perfect slab of perspex you do not need a laser mouse. No laser.

As for the wireless — hey, look, it's on 2.4GHz. Same as your microwave oven, your Bluetooth, your wireless LAN, the next door neighbour's video sender and quite possibly the secret weapons lab they have in their basement. A thousand opportunities for interference this way and that, and for what? When was the last time you were seriously inconvenienced by a mouse cable? For heaven's sake, I've even seen wireless mice tied to their desks with string — so they don't get lost. Easier solution: no wireless.

And with no motor, no laser and no wireless: hey hey hey, no battery. Nothing to run out or leak or get an intermittent contact when you spill coffee on it. Just a mouse that points and clicks. It is the only sane option.

What was Charles thinking? It's OK, I'll have words.


Friday 25/8/2006

On Monday, I wrote a piece about Steorn, a rather peculiar outfit from Dublin which claims to have discovered a way to produce free energy. This isn't the first time I've come across that sort of thing: there's a lot of it about. A whole tribe believes in zero-point, over-unity or similar energy sources, all of which differ in detail but agree on the main points: they produce more energy than they require to operate, there's no way conventional physics can explain them and they have never ever been shown to work in proper laboratory conditions with third parties present capable of verifying anything.

Alas, the Steorn claims match all that. The chief executive, Sean McCarthy, spends quite some time on the phone with me but I cannot work out if what they say is true, why they're keeping it secret. There's some guff about no academic being willing to risk their reputation in public, which is why the company is convening a secret panel of 12 volunteers — fair enough, but why no details of the mystery machine for the rest of us with no reputations to lose? IP issues, says Steorn, gotta keep secrets for the patent application.

Fair enough... then why invite the man from the Guardian to see it working? That's enough to invalidate a patent application, because it counts as prior publication. More to the point, why invite the bloke from the Guardian, who couldn't be expected to understand enough electrical theory to give the machine a proper once-over, and not people like mdash; oh, for example, me — who have enough physics to ask the questions that everyone's dying to ask?

And so it goes. If half the things they claim are true, then they could easily have something quite obviously astounding to show — say, a box with a lightbulb on, powered purely by their marvellous machine. That's much more impressive than a computer which plonks up some numbers, and they are trying to impress. It doesn't matter how well-disposed one is to the idea, the first time you apply the feather of scepticism to their house of cards, down it comes.

The article I write draws plenty of responses. After a lifetime debating — in various senses of the word — with pseudoscientists of all hues online, I shouldn't be surprised at some of the rancour on display. It's still disappointing that none of the people accusing me of talking out of my hat, being in the pay of the nuclear industry (where do I send the invoices?), or helping prop up the conspiracy of silence will address any of my reasoning — apparently, mere logic is just too easily traduced by the Con.

If this this were true.... ah, the world would change overnight. The obvious stuff would be the end of reliance on oil, which means we could build a huge wall around the Middle East and tell 'em to knock when they're ready to come out and play nice. Ditto nuclear technology, which with the exception of some medical and scientific uses could be outlawed harder'n smallpox. There'd be a problem with heat — we'd be introducing lots of energy from nowhere, which couldn't help but mess things up — but that would be it. Water? Desalinate. Food? Hell, we've got the water.

And space travel — we have the technology to take us to the stars; it's called the ion drive, and it produces a gentle yet constant push that adds up very quickly to extreme velocity. The fuel's not a problem: it's the electricity. No solar power between the stars — it's nuclear power, and you don't want to be building that much of it in orbit — or nothing. Any over-unity energy system would get power from that nothing. So yes, I want it to be true more than any other being on the planet wants it to be true. People like Steorn rely on that. I'd rather they relied on the physics.


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