Tech Talk iconTech Talk

A High Tech Version of The Dog Ate My Homework

The high-tech version of the dog-ate-my-homework is the corrupted file, which is now available for a small fee. A online retailer, corrupted-files.com, is offering corrupted files for sale, the theory being, that people like teachers—and technology magazine editors—who are expecting a manuscript on deadline, might not actually attempt to open that file until days later. And if they receive a corrupted file with the right title, they'll never know that it wasn't the real file to begin with, buying the writer days of procrastination. And then, of course, the writer might be able to bargain for a few more days to troubleshoot the problem.

At $3.95 a file, it makes a lot more business sense than pets.com ever did.

PS to Spectrum authors: don't try this at home.

The Shrinking Nanotechnology Blog Universe

When IEEE Spectrum was about to launch its new and improved website, they asked the blog contributors to list some of the external blogs they read so links could be provided.

Among those that I provided were Howard Lovy's Nanobot and the Blog@Nanovic both of which have officially signed off as active blogs after I suggested we provide links to them. Even the latest entry in Richard Jones' Soft Machines blog, which I have linked to as well, seems to indicate that posts might be few and far between in the near future.

Other blogs that I used to frequent on the subject of nanotechnology have long since stopped posting or have been transformed into something else entirely, such as the evolution of the NY Times Bits blog under Barnaby Feder  which covered nanotechnology to what it is today, another computer lifestyle blog.

With this ever-dwindling number of blogs on the subject of nanotechnology, the idea was beginning to dawn on me that maybe this all signified something about the field of nanotechnology in general. I am not sure what the significance or meaning might be. Maybe it only indicates that each blog had to shut down due to completely different circumstances and pressures.

Nonetheless I was struck by the way Howard Lovy gave his adieu: "I am proud of the way this blog became a voice for those who believed government and business was taking nanotech in the wrong direction."

Without taking too much of a leap, I believe the "wrong direction" Mr. Lovy is referring to is what some saw as the marginalization of molecular manufactuirng (MNT) proposed by Eric Drexler and instead moved towards material science on the nanoscale.

If that was indeed Mr. Lovy's raison d'etre for his blog, he can take comfort in the knowledge that Eric Drexler has just been quoted as saying "Real nanotechnology is getting closer" and Drexler himself has picked up the baton of bringing MNT into the mainstream with his own website.

Still, while nanotechnology continues to go through a rather awkward period, it would be good to have as many voices as possible informing its development.

 

Eve Online Game Player Embezzles Virtual Money, Creates Real Trouble

eve online

A financial scandal has hit the universe of Eve Online, a sci-fi computer game, according to a report in BrekingViews. Created by Icelandic company CCP Games, Eve has more than 300,000 subscribers worldwide and is what gamers call a massively multiplayer online game, or MMOG. Players spend their time exploring solar systems and blasting away opponents in starship battles. (To understand what the game is all about, see the profile of Eve's software development director, Erlendur Thorsteinsson, that I wrote for our Dream Jobs report.)

Like other MMOGs, Eve has a virtual currency so players can buy and sell stuff -- weapons, ship modules, and so forth. What's remarkable about Eve is that players are also able to create new ventures and businesses. Players with an entrepreneurial streak can start companies, generate revenue, issue stock, even launch an IPO. In fact, Eve has one of the most complex universes ever seen in a MMOG. One in-game industry that flourished, not surprisingly, was banking. Eve's banks operate just like real ones, holding deposits from customers and lending money for a fee. Eve's largest is called EBank, and it had operated well until ... a top banker decided to run away with the money.

From the BreakingViews report:

Enter Ebank, this virtual universe’s online bank. Because players often do not have the interstellar credits — abbreviated to ISK, also the official abbreviation of the Icelandic kroner — they need to expand their fleets, an enterprising player created a bank that would accept deposits and lend to players who would pledge assets, like their spacecraft, as collateral. 

The bank was a success. According to its Web site (yes, it has one), Ebank accumulated about 8.9 trillion ISK in deposits in 13,000 accounts belonging to 6,000 users. That was far more than it was able to lend out — there were around 1 trillion ISK of loans. 

Somewhere along the way Ebank’s top executive, who went by the online handle Ricdic, apparently got greedy. According to CCP, he made off with deposits, which he then sold for real cash to gamers on a sort of black-market exchange separate from Eve.

How much was stolen? And how to recover the money? Those are the questions that other players who help run EBank are trying to answer. It's clear this is not a Ponzi scheme -- Ricdic is not the Madoff of Eve. The embezzled sum is just a fraction (the BreakingViews story says 10 percent) of the bank's total deposits. Still, the episode has already triggered a bank run. (EBank says its deposits amounted to 2.5 trillion ISK, not 8.9 trillion, adding that the bank run is over and that it is well capitalized.)

What's most puzzling about this banker-gone-thief episode is that it's not Eve's first. It's happened before in 2006, and again early this year. I wonder if the game creators at CCP might decide to take action by establishing a regulatory agency or perhaps a kind of deposit insurance like the FDIC in the United States. Or perhaps the creation of such regulatory and insurance entities will be left to players -- another in-game enterprise with great potential to flourish.

UPDATE: Dr. Eyjolfur Gudmundsson, a CCP employee who is Eve's lead economist, acting as a kind of in-game central bank chief, tells us that EBank has to fix its own problem: "This is something that EBank will have to solve on its own since this is a player driven entity operated by players for other players."

Image: CCP Games/Eve Online

FCC Confirmation Hearing a Yawner

Today's confirmation hearing for the new chairman, Julius Genachowski, and the renomination of thoughtful Republican Rob McDowell was terribly short on drama. A number of advocacy groups had hoped to turn the hearing into a network neutrality showdown of sorts: they submitting a series of harsh questions for the nominees to members of the Committee, but nobody took the bait. Members were cordial and friendly, and the hearing was little more than a formality.

Members asked both nominees how they felt about net neutrality generally, and they both responded in fairly innocuous ways: Genachowski says he wants to preserve the Internet's ability to promote innovation small business creation, without any specifics, and McDowell says it's important to prevent anti-competitive behavior and not worry too much about "discrimination." Both said they prefer to spend Broadband Stimulus funds on un-served areas before under-served ones, the common sense priority.  The FCC's web site came in for a fair amount of criticism, fair enough as it was apparently designed by Kevin Werbach in the '90s and hasn't been upgraded since. Perhaps most significant, there was an endless stream of criticism for the last FCC chairman.
 

McDowell presented an interesting rundown on the state of broadband networks in America. While we've all heard that the US ranks somewhere between 12th and 18th in wireline broadband use, it's less well known that we're number one in wireless broadband and in wireless phone use in general. Part of this is cost-driven, as the per-minute rate for cell calls is less than it is in any other OECD country, and part is due to the greater adoption of smart phones in the US. When we look at the OECD rankings for wireless in general against and wireline broadband, they're practically mirror images of each other. The relationships of these rankings are intriguing.

The question of spectrum mapping and management played a large role in opening statements, but wasn't really followed-up in questions. But there wasn't any point in going into it right now.


The FCC's major work item for the next year is going to be the National Broadband Plan, and there's going to be plenty of lively debate when the FCC delivers its mockup to the Congress in February.

In the event that you're obsessive about these things, the hearing is archived on the C-Span web site, which has been updated this century.

Nanowires Could Improve Fuel Cells...Not Make them Commercially Viable

I read today  a report  on recent research out of the University of Rochester in which long, platinum nanowires were used as catalysts in fuel cells.

 

Now that it has been more or less firmly established that carbon nanotubes are not particularly useful for hydrogen storage, it's time for nanomaterials to get back to their roots when it comes to fuel cells and for work to continue in improving the catalysts.

 

That's all well and good, but do we have to accompany this research with statements that are simply not  true like "People have been working on developing fuel cells for decades. But the technology is still not being commercialized," says James C. M. Li, the lead researcher of the projected in the piece cited above.  The article even clarifies this idea by saying "...fuel cells, which have until now been used largely for such exotic purposes as powering spacecraft."

 

I think what they must be getting at is that portable fuel cells have not developed into much of a commercial market because quite to the contrary I can point them into the direction of entire database of installed, stationary fuel cells around the globe.

 

It's time for a bit of honest talk. Various nanomaterials have demonstrated themselves at being pretty effective catalysts for fuel cells for some time now. It's not that new. But improving the catalysts is not the stumbling block for the wider commercial adoption of portable fuel cells for either your automobile or your laptop. In the former, the cost of producing hydrogen to supply the fuel cells remains prohibitively expensive and there is no infrastructure for a distribution network. In the latter, try to imagine getting past airline security with a half litre of methanol attached to the back of the laptop.

 

Yes, platinum is expensive and drives the cost of fuel cell pretty high, but in the list of obstacles facing the wider adoption of portable fuel cells, I would not put this at the top.

What Will the Data Center of the Future Look Like?

The New York Times Magazine has an article on data centers -- the massive (though invisible to most users) computing infrastructure that runs our web searches, email, blogs, tweets. The article does a good job describing the architecture of current mega data centers and the challenges in building them. But what I missed in the story is: Where do we go from here. What will the data center of the future look like?

Spectrum tried to offer an answer to this very question early this year. In the February '09 article "Tech Titans Building Boom," by UC Berkeley professor Randy H. Katz, we presented an illustration (below) of what a 1 million server data center might look like. That vision -- a roofless facility with hundreds of server-packed shipping containers -- was based in part on Microsoft's Generation 4 data center design. But I'm still wondering: Is that the future of the cloud? A parking lot crammed with steel boxes?

True, there's been some innovation, including an underground data center in Sweden and Google's patented servers-on-a-barge idea. But I guess I was hoping for some real breakthrough in data center design -- a real departure in how these facilities are built and operate. Just to throw out an idea, what about a data center based on AS/RS (Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems)? Picture servers piled vertically into high enclosures with robotic arms that attach power/cooling/network connections and replace defective parts.

Have a wild vision for the data center of the future? Let us know. If it's good we might even run it in the magazine.  

million server data center

The Million-Server Data Center. See a larger version here.

Illustration: Bryan Christie Design

The Digital TV switch was good for me

The Digital TV switch this weekend went smoothly in my San Francisco Bay Area home, more smoothly than I had anticipated. Admittedly, I spent lots of time, effort, and money getting ready for it—besides the converter boxes, I needed a new antenna, and my husband had to go up on the roof and replace our antenna twice before we got it right. Yeah, I lost one TV in the house—no antenna hookup for that third TV, and just too far from the transmitters to pick up a digital signal on rabbit ears.

But in spite of my pre-transition experience that foreshadowed problems with the analog shutdown—a dearth of English language stations and no American Idol viewing next season—we now have most of the channels we had before, plus a few extra, including a sports channel that has made it more difficult to pry certain family members off the couch.

The difference? Most stations in the San Francisco Bay Area changed their digital channels this weekend, in most cases to a much lower UHF or even to a VHF frequency. My understanding is that these new frequencies are somewhat less subject to attenuation, and the difference seems to be enough to put me inside instead of outside the reception footprint. So it looks like analog shutdown, after all, isn’t going to mean a monthly cable television bill in my mailbox.

The San Francisco Bay Area transition reportedly went forward with few hitches. According to a memo from Valari Staab of KGO television, KGO was able to resolve 80 percent of people’s problems receiving its signal on the phone, but acknowledges that, because it is being allowed to operate with more power than others assigned to Channel 6 or 7, the high-VHF frequencies, and broadcasting from its old analog antenna positioned at the top of Sutro Tower, it is having less issues than its brethren around the country. I may lose KGO for a while after mid-July, when it moves daytime broadcasts to an auxiliary antenna while crews are working to put new digital antennas for other stations up high on the tower. That work is expected to be complete in October. Staab also reported that local Best Buys have been running low on antennas.

In the rest of the country, reports, so far, are that things went smoothly. The FCC received nearly 800,000 calls this weekend; Chicago took an early lead as the spot with the most trouble. Volunteers around the country, from firefighters to members of Best Buy’s Geek Squad were standing by to help people hook up their converters. I just tried to explain to my mother, long distance, how to rescan for channels. I was unsuccessful; I gave her the Best Buy hotline, though I doubt she’ll take advantage of it. Fortunately, two channels in her area didn’t switch frequencies, so she’ll have something to watch until my next visit.

It may be some time, if ever, before we really know how many folks around the country were unable to make the transition, who either had to start paying for cable or satellite or adapt to a life without TV, because they are in DTV dead zones.

Report: Sun Micro to Scrap Big Chip Project

Beleaguered Sun Microsystems, the target of a current takeover deal, will scuttle its work on a new processor that had been intended to move the company into a profitable future, according to a report in today's New York Times.
The newspaper is reporting that unnamed insiders familiar with Sun's planning for the future have disclosed that the Santa Clara, Calif., computer maker will pull the plug on its ambitious multicore processor for next-generation servers code-named Rock.

After working on the Rock chip for more than five years, Sun may be ready to walk away from the expensive design process needed to finish the chip just as its executives are readying to turn over the reins of the company to leadership being filled by Oracle Corp., which has bid US $7.4 billion to acquire the ailing firm (please see Bolt from the Blue: Oracle, Not IBM, Captures Sun Micro).

While Sun CEO Jonathan Schwarz boasted two years ago that the Rock project would return his firm to profitability, the reality has been that the processor has been more difficult to perfect than anticipated, leading to a series of delays in its development.

Ironically for us at IEEE Spectrum, we've just published an article on the technical merits of the Rock processor (please see Sun's Rock CPU Could Be a Gem for Oracle). The new chip (which now may never see the light of day) was to have featured 16 processor cores employing a revolutionary technique for moving data around called transactional memory, which enables programs running on the chip to read from and write to memory registers more easily and rapidly.  

How today's news will play into the ongoing takeover discussions is an open question, but it seems clear that Sun would not have taken such a significant step without consulting Oracle's management.

And so it goes for the once-proud Sun, as it gets ready to set into the twilight.

Goodbye analog, I'm going to miss you

This morning I turned on the little TV that sits on top of the file cabinet in my home office. I bought it soon after 9/11, and typically use it for breaking news and major events, like presidential inaugurations. It gets three slightly snowy channels through a $10 rabbit-eared antenna; the antenna cable that drops through the walls and out through the floor in the family room and bedroom doesn’t make it over to this side of the house. That’s been fine for my purposes—breaking news tends to be covered across the networks, so three channels (ABC, NBC, and PBS) have been plenty.

There’s no breaking news today, so ordinarily this TV would be dark. But I plan on leaving it on from now until it’s getting nothing but static (or something called nightlight service that simply tells me my television is analog and needs a converter) as my personal farewell to analog television.

Because sometime between now and midnight tonight, the vast majority of analog broadcasting in the United States will cease.  Only a few low-power stations will remain. And since no converter box is going to be able to pull a digital signal from this particular pair of rabbit ears, the next stop for this little Sharp cathode ray tube television is the recycling center, where I can only hope it’s treated kindly and doesn’t end up hurting recycling workers or the environment.

I’ve got two other TVs in the house already hooked up to converter boxes, and a giant new antenna on the roof that enables those converter boxes to pull in a reasonable number of channels. But to date I mostly leave the converters turned off, since many of my favorite channels are, so far, only receivable on analog. That may change; along with analog shutdown comes the great frequency scramble, meaning channels I don’t get today, I might get tomorrow. Or not.

 

So tomorrow morning I’ll go over to those two TVs, turn on the converter boxes, and rescan for channels. I’ll have my fingers crossed, because here in the San Francisco Bay Area reception is spotty, and no one can really predict whether or not I’ll be have access to anywhere near the same menu of digital channels that I had in an analog world.

I doubt I’ll be the only one with my fingers crossed. Local broadcasters will be hoping not to lose viewers—and not to frustrate so many that their phone lines will be ringing off the hook come Saturday. The FCC will be hoping that they won’t be inundated by complaints, but they’ll have 4000 operators on call just in case. President Obama will be hoping that the transition goes smoothly, justifying the delay from the original date-certain of February 17th.

And in the next few weeks, we will see, because at this point, we just don’t know. As of last week, according to research firm Smith Geiger LLC, one out of eight folks who get their television over-the-air had yet to attempt hook up a converter box or digital television—Neilson estimates the number as just short of 3 million people. And that doesn’t count folks like me, who hooked it all up but still relies on analog for most of our TV watching.

So we will see if folks are thrilled with their new digital picture, or frustrated by their inability to receive anything at all without paying for cable or satellite. We’ll see what housebound elderly will do without baseball games to watch next week—I’m thinking of my 90-plus year old aunt and an 80-something former neighbor for whom snowy baseball games on ancient TVs provided constant companionship. I do hope it goes smoothly, that I—and every other over-the-air TV watcher in the country—is thrilled with the vast array of crystal clear channels and new wireless services that have been the promise of the digital transition. But we will see.

Semicon Industry Group Sees Hope After 2009

The downturn may be nearing for the semiconductor sector according to the trade group that monitors its health.

The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) announced Friday that the manufacturers it represents should rebound in 2010 after slumping badly through the rest of 2009. The SIA said it is projecting sector sales to reach US $195.6 billion for the current year, a decline of 21.3 percent from sales of $248.6 billion the previous year.

The good news in the brief semi-annual estimate is that the SIA sees sales reaching $208.3 billion next year, a jump of 6.5 percent, followed by another 6.5 percent increase the year after, which would peg the income from microchips and processors climbing to $221.9 billion.

The SIA is the organization that represents the public business interests of members such as IBM, Intel, and Texas Instruments.

Advertisement

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement
Load More