Thursday, April 21, 2011


The Second Opinion Tribune is going to change its host. Blogger by Google is nice but misses one essential element: an iOS app. To keep up with the news I would like to be able to type posts everywhere I am. I noticed that recently I did not update this blog because I was not at a computer. My iPhone is always with me and typing a quick post for the blog on it is a breeze. So, from now on, The Second Opinion Tribune will run on, which does offer an iOS app. So head on over to for the latest on the latest.

See you there,
- Henk

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Rumour: Twitter business pages

Both Twitter and Facebook operate on the fiercely contested battlefield of the social web. But they do so using vastly different tactics. Where Twitter is simple and short, Facebook is complicated and elaborate.

Another difference between the two is their commercial views. Facebook made its commercial intent very clear almost from the start. Advertisements, micro-transactions in games, business pages where a corporation can describe its business, all geared towards creating a flow of money with the ultimate goal of making Facebook a profitable company. Twitter however only presented a business plan in 2010 while the service had started in 2006. In the early years there was hardly a sign that Twitter had a commercial heart. That is now changing.

In October last year, Twitter CEO Evan Williams resigned and handed the helm to Dick Costollo, the man behind the business plan and the "promoted tweets, trends and accounts". A clear indication that Twitter is changing course. And now there is a new rumour: Twitter may offer companies the possibility of corporate pages where they can profile themselves and garner interest for there products. These pages can then be used to generate followers.

Although this construction does not necessarily change Twitter's basic model of simplicity, it does worry me a little. The charm of Twitter is its simplicity and openness. This allows you to be creative and use it as you wish to use it. This is something which is a lot harder to do on closed, highly regulated systems like Facebook. Might this be the first step to be-Facebooking Twitter?

Of course Twitter Inc needs to think commercially. Just paying the monthly bandwidth bills must be a nightmare. But lets hope that this commercial thinking does not ruin the simple beauty that sets Twitter apart in a busy social network market.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why it may not be a good idea to arm the rebels in Libya

The US and the UK are considering to arm the rebels in Libya. This may not be a very good idea. There are the considerations already touched upon in the article (linked to above): al-Qaeda involvement with the rebels and a further splitting of the international coalition. But there is one other consideration that may have far longer term repercussions.

For this you only have to know a little recent history. How did the arming of the rebels in Afghanistan work out? In the short term it worked out great - from the viewpoint of the Mujahideen and the US who wanted the Russians out of the region. However in the long term it did not work out so well.

What happened was that young people were trained in using arms. Young people with a lot of anger in them. Young people who knew no life other than the fighting kind. Then, once the war was fought the US just acted like Afghanistan had never existed and pulled the plug on any further support. Afghanistan was left with a martial youth and little or no idea how to form a nation from the rubble left by years of war. They were left hanging at the time when financial aid for education and rebuilding was what it needed. Result: extremism flourished and now the coalition forces are reaping what they sowed: war against a foe they created themselves.

The chance of the same thing happening in Libya is big. Like the Mujahideen, the rebels in Libya have al-Qaeda elements among them. Not all of them will adhere to the extremist views but neither did the Mujahideen. However when you have lived under an oppressive regime all your life, when you have nothing and your former ally has buggered off and left you stranded, an extremist promising you heaven makes you pull the trigger pointing any which way the extremist tells you to. What have you got to lose?

The US and the UK do not have a great track record for supporting a country after it has been freed of its dictator. Afghanistan and Iraq are only recent examples. Will Libya become the next ruin they leave behind? Or will it become an example of changed politics? I doubt it. I doubt Obama has the power to pull the right strings to mount a massive, long term relief operation to help rebuild a peaceful Libya. Let's hope I'm wrong.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Turing, homosexuality, an app and irony

In 1952 Alan Turing, the father of the modern computer, was prosecuted for his homosexuality. He was given the choice: undergo treatment that would 'cure' him of his homosexuality or go to prison. He chose the first option. The hormonal treatment he received caused severe depression and one day in 1954 he was found dead. He had eaten an apple laced with cyanide. An inquest ruled it was suicide. A genius, worthy of the highest plaudits was mercilessly driven to death by anti-gay laws.

This week an app was pulled from the Apple app store that promised "freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus". The app was initiated by Exodus, a group of Christians promoting the "ex-gay" movement. They claim they want to help people change their sexuality because they say many people are struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction.

How ironic is it that a device which was born from the ideas of Alan Turing should be used to promote the misconception that killed him?

The misconception lies in the fact that gays are not struggling with their sexuality, they are struggling with narrow minded people who use their religious beliefs as justification to force their views on others. They are struggling with people who make the lives of their fellow human beings a living hell by preaching doom and eternal suffering as punishment for something that can't be changed and is perfectly natural and should be a happy circumstance. They are struggling with people who presume too much and should be told to mind their own business and stop interfering with a person's most personal, most private affairs: one's love life.

There is no power in the world or outside it that can change who you love, whether the one you love is of the opposite sex or the same. Even Jesus, that super-hero of the Christian church is powerless in that matter. Trying to force sexuality into harshly defined and questionable morals results invariably in psychological pain, misery and eventually destruction. In effect the gay cure app promotes hurt and pain in a very real way. It is far more damaging than any porn-app that Steve Jobs tries so vigourously to keep out of the Apple app store. So it is only right that this app should be pulled. It is bad enough it had been approved in the first place.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Are gadgets inherently non-green

In the public eye the search for green living mainly concentrates on green energy. The picture the media paints is that once energy becomes cheap and cheerful, all our problems are solved. But is this true? Can we consume with abandon once energy becomes as green as the grass and as cheep as chips?

“No,” is what the bleak answer must be I think. Energy is just part of the equation. Another part of the equation is made up by rare earth elements. Now, the name of these elements is slightly misleading. They are not especially rare, just very hard to get at. In fact, some of these elements are pretty common in the earth’s crust. But to separate them from their surroundings is another matter.

It turns out that refining material to get at the rare earth elements is an environmentally hazardous process. Often these elements are found in ores that also contain mildly radioactive metals such as thorium and uranium. Hence the waste product of refining rare earth elements from these ores is mildly radioactive and thus harmful to the environment. Also, during the process of refining, toxic acids are used which need to be disposed off properly. And as is always the case with us humans, if there’s money to be made, some of it will be made illegally. Sadly these illegal refineries of rare earth elements tend to take the toxicity of the waste products slightly less seriously than they should.

On top of this, only a few countries produce large amounts of rare earth elements. The largest producer by far (nearly 100%) being China. And they have announced a restrictions on the export of the much wanted elements. So they are becoming rare for real now.

Apart from rare earth elements, the production of our beloved gadgets also has a huge impact on our habitat. To get a coveted game console from heap of parts to gleaming object d’amour in your living room means a huge amount of transportation, robots to power, chemicals to react, waste created and heat to generate and dissipate. So the amount of impact on the environment of the production of one gadget is much more than just the sum of its parts.

So unless we find a way to produce gadgets that use common elements that are readily available without harmful refining procedures and we are able to streamline the production process in such a way that there is no harmful waste and no energy loss I’m afraid the enjoyment of gadgets will remain a thoroughly non-green human hobby. No matter where the power to make them sing and dance in your home comes from.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan disaster: is there anything positive to come out of it?

It is hard to come up with a second opinion about the series of disasters that struck Japan. The amount of human suffering is unequivocally horrible and this article is in no way trying to deny this. However, one way to cope with the tragedy as outsiders who can do little to help in any meaningful way, as most of us are, is to try and find a bigger picture that may show some positives to come out of a disaster like this.

The first that comes to mind is the fact that a technologically highly developed society witnessed this disaster. This means that the quake, the tsunami and the nuclear disaster have all been recorded both with amateur equipment like mobile phone camera's and by sophisticated specialist equipment. In 2004 much of the tsunami data was recorded once the water had receded. There is much more 'live' data coming out of this disaster that will teach us much more about the behaviour of shock waves, large bodies of water on the move and dispersal of radio active material once it escapes the reactor. In short: data becomes knowledge. Knowledge aids prevention and management of disasters.

The nuclear disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant shows us that our lust for electricity has us use technology that we can not contain as soon as things go wrong. Nuclear disasters are rare but once they do happen their impact is big. 

It will be impossible to suddenly close every nuclear energy plant in the world. Eco-warriors may shout for that scenario but the electricity they use to power there bullhorns must come from somewhere. There are too many of us that plug in too many devices on a daily basis and nuclear power is too cheap, too plentiful and statistically too safe not to use it. But, and it is a big but, we have now seen again that a nuclear reactor starts to live a life of its own once we lose control over the system. The Chernobyl disaster was also such an event and Three Mile Island in the US, although the effects were minimal, another. The costs of such a disaster are tremendous and make the argument for cheap energy a tenuous one.

So the disaster in Japan may make us think again. It may stimulate companies and governments to start investing into the development of alternative energy sources in a big way. And the alternatives are there. Apart from solar, wind and wave energy, there is the TWR (Travelling Wave Reactor) which uses depleted uranium as its fuel. In one process we have zero emission energy and we get rid of our nuclear waste. Sounds too good to be true? Only further research will tell but in my opinion it's worth a shot! A disaster like this may open doors previously closed. Investment both in time and money and a willingness to listen to alternative energy proposals may become more readily available now that we have been faced with a nuclear disaster in a modern, technologically highly developed country.

Another, more sinister aspect of the nuclear disaster is that there are relatively few nuclear accidents on this scale. Data coming from a real world situation is always more valuable than data coming from a simulation. You can test fly a plane but you can't test fly a nuclear power plant. This accident will teach engineers a lot about the process of an accident and it will help make future power plants safer. Because, until we have found an alternative, new power plants will have to be built. Unless we substantially change our ways.

The Japanese people have shown themselves as examples to most of the rest of the world. A disaster like this could have easily sparked widespread looting and food hoarding in most other cultures. Not in Japan. The calm and reserved way they are dealing with this disaster is exemplary. There is an interesting article and discussion on this subject here: Researchers into human behaviour and the mechanics of society may learn a lot from the way the Japanese people are coping with this disaster. This may teach us all something valuable in a world that is becoming more and more crowded.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

I pay my taxes, so let me watch YouTube in peace

About five years ago I stopped watching public and commercial television. We still had our cable connection but I just could no longer stand the garbage it delivered to our home. Either the quality of television had become worse or my tastes had changed, either way I stopped watching. Less than a year later we cut the cord completely and cancelled our cable subscription. We switched to Internet content completely. A Mac mini was bought, connected to our television and the mouse and keyboard became our remote. The bliss of self chosen TV content was ours.

Over the years the content became better and better. Video podcasts became more professionally produced - thanks to the efforts of such people as Leo Laporte and the guys and gals at Revision 3 - and YouTube came of age with better video quality and better content.

Much of the content on YouTube these days is contested as being illegal. Many a BBC programme or other public television content has been 'archived' at YouTube much to the chagrin of those that originally aired them.

However I feel justified to watch these programmes. Why? Because I pay my taxes. In the old days the situation in the Netherlands was such that one paid a fee as soon as one had a TV or radio in the house. This fee was used to finance public television and radio. In 2000 this fee was abolished and incorporated into the income tax. Income tax was raised by one point something percent and thus everyone pays that fee. Whether you watch public television or not. This used to be a fine system because everyone has a TV and/or radio and everyone used to watch public TV or listened to public radio.

But the situation has changed and our household is an example of the forerunners of that change (I'm tempted to shout 'Viva la revolucion!' but it is 4 AM so I'd better not...). We no longer watch public TV or listen to public radio. We can't because there is no longer a cable in our house delivering that content and picking up the stuff out of the ether is ancient history. So we watch public content - and yes BBC programmes were syndicated to our public broadcast channels - through YouTube and I feel no guilt doing so as I pay my taxes and thus pay into the public broadcast system of which I make no use.

I think this system should be more widely implemented. Instead of fighting illegal downloads, would it be an idea to embrace them. Charge a nominal fee for instance - either through taxes or otherwise - that reflects the content public television airs, i.e. feature films, syndicated programmes and bilge like the bloody X-factor and let people choose their own poison through channels such as YouTube or other Internet tubes (like Bittorrent or Usenet). In effect: illegal downloading would no longer exist, it'd be paid for. Those that do not watch Internet TV or do not listen to Internet audio content can go cry in a corner: I paid for all the filth they watched ever since I cut the cord with public broadcasting, now let them suffer for a while.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Life on earth, did it come from out there?

Not for the first time meteorites show signs of life. Or to be more precise they show signs of past life. Supposed micro-fossils of algae found in three meteorites seem to suggest that life is wide spread in the universe and it may even suggest that life on earth may have come from other parts of the universe.

Of course the claims are counter-claimed, suspected, scrutinised, disbelieved and generally treated with the utmost circumspection. After all, God forbid (!) that life on earth should be less unique than we hoped it would be.

On the other hand: can someone please explain to me why should life only exist on earth? I know, I know: There are lots of theories proving that the situation on earth has a <insert very big number here> to one chance of having occurred anywhere else but given that the universe is pretty damn large, the chance of it not having occurred elsewhere becomes remote again. So let's just say the chances in both camps even out which means that life on earth is just so-so unique and it is quite possible that life has developed on other planets in the universe.

Hopefully the extensive poring over rocks from outer space will one day give a conclusive answer to the controversial question: is there life somewhere out there in the universe? It would be great to put a definitive check-mark against that one so that we can all get on with our, well, life really.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

We can prevent a sixth mass extinction... but can we?

During earth’s long history, 5 mass extinction events have taken place. The sixth may be underway according to Anthony Barnosky, one of the co-authors of a study published in the journal Nature. The study suggests that we are indeed living in dire times and that if nothing is done about our impact on habitats, climate and the earth’s recourses, earth could experience its sixth mass extinction as soon as 300 years from now.

not too late

On a more positive note the study also suggests that it is not too late to do something about it. If we change our ways and stop treating the planet as an infinite source of goodies, many of the disappearing species may recuperate from their declining numbers.

change our ways

So will we? Change our ways that is. Yesterday saw the launch of the iPad 2. A product that no doubt will follow the same path to success its predecessor did. In other words it will sell millions. Every one of those iPad 2’s uses valuable resources the earth can’t provide without feeling the impact. No matter how many green stickers Steve Jobs sticks on the box, the iPad 2, sold in large numbers, contributes to the major impact we humans have on our living planet. And the iPad 2 is just one of the many gadgets we run mad for.


The problem is that Steve Jobs and his products attract a lot of attention and more importantly, that attention is followed up by action: the buying of a new product. News about the environment or human impact on life on earth is not popular and almost never followed up by action. Or rather inaction, i.e. the not buying of the newest gadget. There may be a fundamental animal instinct at the bottom of this behaviour. In other words we may not be able to help ourselves. The buying of a product gratifies our hunting and gathering instinct. We do not need to actively hunt or gather our food, we do no longer need to cut wood to keep warm, we do no longer need to build our own shelters; but the instinct that drives us towards all that still lingers inside us. At the same time, we are lazy, as most animals are. We always try to walk the path of least resistance. So instead of satisfying the instinct that tells us to provide for our needs by doing the things our long lost ancestors did, we buy stuff. It doesn’t matter what stuff, as long as it is stuff. We are like magpies, lining our nests with useless trinkets but we can't help it.


So unless we can find a different way to gratify our animal instincts, a way that affects the planet's habitats to a lesser extent, I fear we may be unable to control ourselves. The next mass extinction may well be caused by the species that has claimed superiority over animals based on its intelligence and yet we may still be too much of an animal to be able to prevent it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Is it going to be myxomatosis all over again?

Just finished reading a post on Wired. The title of the piece is "Mosquito-Attacking Fungus Engineered to Block Malaria". Apparently scientists are devising a new way to battle malaria by using genetically engineered fungi. The fungi attack the mosquitoes after reproduction while at the same time producing proteins that attack the parasite responsible for malaria. The 'after reproduction' bit is important as this prevents the mosquitoes from developing resistance against the fungi. It is proudly announced that this method will at the same time affect other mosquito species so other diseases like Dengue fever also run the chance of getting eradicated.

It all sounds too good to be true. No more malaria, which kills a million people a year and no more Dengue fever. All by genetically engineering some humble fungi. However, when something sounds too good to be true it usually is. And my fears are that in this case the axiom might be justified again.

Once upon a long lost time, when we humans were still very naive and not so very, very wise the way we are now, we thought to control bunny plagues by introducing myxomatosis. It turned out that the virus went way beyond control and moved swiftly on towards elimination of the rabbit. As a result the Iberian Lynx is all but extinct. If it were to become extinct, it would be the first big cat to go the dodo way in 10,000 years. Way to go, humanity.

We know little about the way our natural surroundings work. We think we do but we don't and as always: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. What will happen when all disease carrying mosquitoes are eradicated? We don't know. It may be that the humble mosquito fulfils an essential link in the chain that is called nature. It may be that in a hundred years time we have rid the world of malaria but created a problem greater than malaria ever was. A million deaths a year is not a trivial matter and I understand the necessity of finding a way to battle malaria but messing with fundamentals in nature of which we can scarcely predict the effects may be a very dangerous path to take.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Nokia and Microsoft, charging elephant or beached whale?

The announced collaboration between Microsoft and Nokia could become a troubled relationship. Both Nokia chief Stephen Elop and Microsoft's president of mobile Andy Lees have been telling the world that the new collaboration is good for all concerned but the market has reacted sceptically, with Nokia's stocks diving consistently for the past few days. What makes the marriage a rocky one is the fact that both Nokia and Microsoft are coming up from behind. Sure, Nokia has the largest market share worldwide if all mobile phones are counted. However when it comes to smartphones the numbers are quite different. And pretty soon, nearly all phones will be smartphones.

Miniaturisation and faster, cheaper processors are cropping up making smartphone functionality no longer a top of the range feature only. Android will be the choice for most manufacturers because it is easier to adapt to watered down versions for the lower end smartphones. It is cheap and well established by now. Windows phone 7 is still a long way behind when it comes to stability, features and developer proficiency in writing software for it.

At least the link with Nokia will give developers a reasonable expectation of volume when it comes to the Windows Phone 7 platform but if the platform fails to perform its duties in the field, both Nokia and Microsoft will look more like a beached whale than a charging elephant. And Microsoft's track record in making reliable mobile operating systems is not something to boast about.

Monday, February 14, 2011

David Cameron's high horse

David Cameron, the British prime minister, held a speech recently in which he claimed multiculturalism in the UK had failed. He indicated that the government had to take a closer look at groups promoting Islamist extremism. Such groups should be spurned by ministers and groups promoting extremism in universities and prisons should be denied public funding and barred from spreading their message.

This speech has been quoted and misquoted, pulled out of context and attacked over these last weeks and labelled as right wing. Which in a sense it is. On the other hand, if - and I stress it is an if - extremist groups receive public funding while they do not respect things like democracy, racial equality, gender equality and freedom of religion, sexuality and opinion, that is not right in a free country like Britain or any of the other free countries in Europe.

But does the fact that these groups exist and that they receive public funding mean that multiculturalism has failed? I think not. I think it means the government has failed. Multiculturalism is alive and kicking. Ever been to an Indian restaurant? Aren't there many European people practising Yoga or Tai Chi? Anyone eat at a MacDonalds lately? We tend to forget that many of the things we now take for granted due to their having been around a long time have been imported from abroad.

The problem I have with David Cameron's speech is its focus on one particular group of people. And I hear this attack more and more often lately all over Europe. Yes one should guard against our freedoms being taken away. But never forget that with the assimilation of other cultures we enrich our own. So it is very dangerous to say multiculturalism has failed, it plays into the hands of those that say we should close the borders and forego all efforts at dialogue. And lets face it: does Cameron have such a high horse to sit on? If every foreigner should be forced to behave like UK citizens, a good many of them would be out on big city streets after hours, drunk out of their minds, shouting inane nonsense and showing off various parts of their anatomy. Yep, that's a culture to be proud of.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wikipedia for robots

Robots have become an essential tool in manufacturing and slowly but surely they are becoming part of our households as well. The vacuum cleaning robot is available in any self respecting house hold appliances store, robotic pets are a reality and children (and adults!) learn to program robots with their Lego Mindstorms sets.

But it seems that the production of robots is still somewhat of a case by case affair. Every robot is made for one purpose and in many cases its programming is a case of reinventing the wheel. A group of European scientists have plans to change this. They are setting up RoboEarth. RoboEarth is essentially a database of knowledge about real world situations that robots can use to quickly adapt to changing environments. This will help the field of robotics to advance much faster. If I understand it correctly, RoboEarth will function as a collective memory for robots. It's not yet a hive mind but it's getting there.

The stuff of classic science fiction is getting more and more real every day. The phrase "I for one welcome our new robotic overlords" may be slightly premature but robots capable of learning to interact with new environments from robot-wikipedia is compelling stuff. No matter how you define intelligence, knowledge is an intrinsic part of autonomous operation. An animal can survive autonomously because of the knowledge it has about its environment. Allowing robots to tap into a fount of information about a multitude of environments is another step in the direction of creating autonomous artificial creatures that can operate outside their designated environment. The robots of Asimov may become an everyday reality. It may be a while yet, but they seem less a figment of the great science fiction writer's imagination than they used to be.

More on RoboEarth in this BBC news article.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Before porn sites there was the Bible

How beautiful you are and how pleasing,
  my love, with your delights!
7 Your stature is like that of the palm,
  and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
8 I said, “I will climb the palm tree;
  I will take hold of its fruit.”
May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine,
  the fragrance of your breath like apples,
9 and your mouth like the best wine.

Song of Solomon 7:6 (new international version 2010)

Two new books by Jennifer Wright Knust and Michael Coogan try to find out what the Bible really has to say about sex. As an atheist I thought I’d have a quick look into the subject myself. And boy, I was not disappointed. There is no need whatsoever to hide the Hustler in your Bible at Sunday service. It’s all there already!

Christian conservatives have us believe that the Bible is a book of moral guidance from which no deviation is possible. This moral guidance is adhered to especially when it comes to sex. They use the Bible to outlaw homosexuality, adultery, sex before marriage; in short any sex that is not between one man and one woman within the confines of a church ordained marriage.

The problem is that the Bible is full of sexual deviation. How can it not be? It is after all a book written by men (and yes I do mean men as in male humans). Imagine some scholar sitting cross legged in a desert staring at nothing having to come up with yet another text to satisfy the morally questionable whims of the ruler of the day - texts justifying the killing of baby boys (Exodus 1:22) or the ruthless slaying of 10,000 people (Judges 3:29)- you would want your diversions, right? So the holy texts are peppered with racy bits. I imagine the rulers and upper classes all through history relished their scholarly readings to be spiced up by these outpourings of sexual innuendo and licentious daring do’s by the main characters. So a win-win for both scholar and reader.

The Bible, that ancient text is not outdone by modern day porn sites. If it’s niche sex you’re into, it’s in there. Swinging? Abram is sent by his wife Sarai to impregnate her servant Hagar. And Abram gladly complies (Genesis 16:2). Sex with older women? Sarah at 90 has her pleasures with Abraham (Genesis 18). Sex with sisters? Jacob first “went in unto” Leah and later “in unto” Rachel, her sister (Genesis 29:23 and further). Oh and to make it even more kinky for poor Jacob both sisters offer him their servants as well. And guess what? He goes “in unto” them as well (Genesis 30:3 and further).

I could go on and on and on. But frankly, if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. If you’re interested there’s much more biblical porn to be found on the Internet to complement the non-biblical variety.

So the Bible is a moral guide book? Great. In that case do as Abram does. Do as Abraham does and do as Jacob does. The Christian conservatives have it all wrong: you can screw around as much as you like whenever you like, the Bible says so. Or maybe, just maybe, here’s a thought: start thinking for yourself for once and try to find North on your moral compass all by yourself. I know it’s hard but it can’t be worse than using the Bible for a guide because to be honest, if you do that you run the risk of becoming rife with STD’s and very, very fatigued.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Desktop, laptop or tablet: which form factor will win?

In the old days, when I was so much younger than today, computers used to be pretty easy to describe. A box, a keyboard and a screen. Often the box and keyboard were one and sometimes some extra boxes were added but the device on your desk was pretty unmistakably a computer.

Today it is different. The computer has thoroughly infiltrated our lives and even the timer chip in a microwave oven has more processing power than those expensive mastodons of my youth. The term computer has become a generic word describing a device that controls a multitude of processing tasks in our daily lives. Even when we narrow it down to the personal computer, the field is varied. Do we mean a desktop computer which still adheres to the classic set-up of box, keyboard and screen? Or do we mean an all-in-one device like the iMac or a laptop? Or is the personal computer a flat slab of electronics nestled behind a screen at which we furiously stab our fingers? At the moment the answer is of course: all of the above.

The question that fascinates me is: what will be the ultimate form of the personal computer? Will we keep having such a varied menagerie of form factors or will one prevail? There is no doubt that for some time to come, the diverse applications of the personal computer will garner diverse preferences in form factor as miniaturization has not come far enough yet to allow one tool for all jobs. Still, like with the car, one day one form factor may rule the roost. In other words: one form factor may be made to work in all area's of personal computing.

The main factor that is going to decide this I believe is the question of interfacing. The interface that is best in tune with our brain will decide which form factor will prevail. And looking at the rapid (not to say rabid) success of the touch interface, I believe the tablet computer has the best cards for becoming the dominant computer in the near future.

The intuitive action of touching something to make something happen is the easiest path our brain can take to accomplish a task. The sooner we can dispense with the extra thought processes of moving a mouse to move a pointer on the screen to click at a certain spot, the better our lazy brain will like it.

Many will say that the tactile experience of mouse and keyboard can never be replaced by a touch interface. But that is the same as saying that handwriting will never be replaced by typing. Or compressed digital music will never replace uncrompressed digital music on CD's. The masses will dictate the production lines and apart from some niche usage, the lesser used method will disappear. And technological development will gravitate towards incorporating as many disciplines into one production line as possible. It's cheaper.

The conclusion I can draw from observing the market and incorporating past industrial developments is that the tablet computer may well become the dominating form factor in all walks of computer life. Another conclusion I can draw is that I may be very wrong about this. After all, even Bill Gates thought that 640K of memory should be enough for anybody*.

* It appears Bill Gates never said this. See comments.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Navy goes Star Wars with laser breakthrough

The US Navy has been working on a Superlaser, or rather it gave Boeing a 26 million dollar task order to build a prototype. The designs are finished and a prototype is set to be delivered in 2012. However to make a laser into a weapon that will do more than boil an egg, it needs to output at least 100 KW of power. Until now just 14 KW was delivered. On 19 January however the Office of Naval Research reported that a breakthrough had been achieved which put the project nine months ahead of schedule. The ultimate goal, a Megawatt class Free Electron Laser (FEL) has come a big step closer. In the not too distant future the US Navy will have a weapon that can be deployed as an instant - well, speed of light - defence against missiles and aircraft. Not only that, the laser can become a multipurpose device as it can also be used as a guidance system, a tracking system and a sensor.

As we are moving into the second decade of the 21st century, Star Wars is becoming more and more real. The next thing to develop is a space going aircraft carrier and we're there. And as boys always feel the need to pee further than the other boy, it is only a matter of time before someone constructs a spheroid weapon-system that can destroy an entire planet. George Lucas is a visionary. Or rather he is a good judge of human nature. I can't help feeling it is a sad reflection on the human race that instead of us developing into morally superior beings we are just continuing our advancement in developing a better club with which we can bash each other's head in more efficiently. Be that as it may and be that - in my view - a sad inevitability, the science behind the development of a superlaser is quite stunning and the amounts of controlled energy that are manipulated will no doubt bring advancements in more peaceful applications.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Is Bubble Ball the rightful new king of the app store?

The king is dead, long live the king. Angry Birds is number one no more on the the iTunes app store (at the time of writing). Its successor is a humble game called Bubble Ball written by 14 year old Robert Nay. The game and the fact that a fourteen year old wrote it have taken the Internet by storm. Articles about this coup appear on major news sites and every tech blog worth its salt.

But is Bubble Ball a better game than Angry Birds or does the hype about a youthful programmer producing a 'not bad' game play a role. I decided to find out and downloaded Bubble Ball. Less than an hour later I had completed the game and decided it was fun but no where near as much fun as Angry Birds. And I am comparing like to like because I never played the full version of Angry Birds so I am comparing  Bubble Ball, which is a free game to the free demo version of Angry Birds.

Bubble Ball is a game where you are given certain objects that you can use to guide a ball from one point on the screen to a finish flag while gravity acts on the ball. The objects include ramps, planks and blocks but also arrows that launch the ball left or right or gravity reversers and slow down objects. There is no denying the ingenuity involved in the creation of the levels.

It is not a tough game however. Angry Birds had me scratching my head many a time and the added incentive to finish a level at three stars instead of just one kept me launching those feathered menaces much longer than I had expected to. In Bubble Ball there is no such incentive. Finish the level and that's it. You can however add your own rules if you wish and decide you want to finish the level with as little objects as possible. This adds a little difficulty but no rewards are given for this other than your own satisfaction. In the end I scorched through the game and was glad it was a free one. Mind you, it did make me smile in a self congratulatory way a couple of times but the game is just too short and too easy.

So, do I think it remarkable that a fourteen year old could have programmed it? Yes, definitely. And if  he keeps at this we will see great stuff from him I am sure. Do I think Angry Birds should have been dethroned by Bubble Ball? No, not in any way.

I am convinced that the 'young prodigy' hype did help the game and although one part of me does not begrudge the lad his fame, another part of me fears the attention overload. I hope he will manage to keep both feet firmly on the ground and keep at it. If he does, great games will spring from that mind I am sure.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Computer revolution 4.0

The first computing devices were mechanical machines with lots of wheels, cogs, rods and levers moving to perform operations on data. Electricity revolutionised these machines and valves replaced the wheels, cogs, rods and levers. Then the transistor came along and by putting many of those on a silicon chip the path to miniaturisation became an interstate. But soon, as computers became smaller and more powerful, our demands grew with it. A terabyte of memory will hold a couple of HD movies but together with our photo's, home-movies and music it's hardly enough anymore. Two terabyte will only buy us a few months more. We need more. And to play those HD movies and to play our HD games we need all the processing power we can get. It is beginning to look as though silicon and copper is not going to cut it much longer. We have reached the end of what the humble grain of sand can deliver.

Enter the next generation of computers. What that computer will look like still needs a bit of a look in a crystal ball but one can already see a few possible candidates for the most important elements of the machine: the processor, storage and communication.

The candidate for the processor would be the quantum computer. Dutch scientists of the University of Delft and the University of Eindhoven have discovered a way to better control the building blocks of such a quantum computer. These building blocks, called qubits, used to be controlled by a magnetic field which is very difficult to generate within a chip. The Dutch scientists have managed to use an electrical field to manipulate the qubits. On top of that they have managed to enclose these qubits in a piece of nanowire which essentially gives them a real building block to construct a computer with.

The next element of our fictitious future computer would be storage. It is great to have a super fast computer that spurts out data at a rate we can only dream of but where would we store all that data? At the rate we are consuming data storage now we are literally filling warehouses with bits and real estate is expensive which makes storage expensive. Enter the humble bacterium. Students of the Chinese University in Hong Kong are making headway in the technique of storing data in bacteria. They extract DNA from E. Coli bacteria - found in the lower intestine of nearly every warm blooded animal - make a small change to the DNA and put it back. Data stored. In this way 1 gram of bacteria can store the same amount of data as 900 terabyte drives. And it will last because every new generation of bacteria will carry the new, modified DNA. That way data can be stored for thousands of years. The students even built in encryption of the data. How about carrying your data in your belly? Pretty safe place to keep stuff, right? Only take care when you're taking anti-biotics, it may wipe your family photo's.

Then there is the sending of your ultra-HD family snaps to grandma on the other side of the globe. At the moment this is done with fibre-optics and satellites. But again thanks to quantum physics this can be done differently. Researchers at the University of Calgary in Canada have discovered a way to contain a quirk that has puzzled scientists for almost a hundred years. The entangled quantum state of photons can be reflected in two photons even while the photons are very far apart. In some mysterious way they communicate with each other. That communication we can use of course to transmit ones and zeroes over long distances. Until now though it had been impossible to garner any predictable success with this phenomenon. The researchers at the University of Calgary have now been able to contain this quirk and use it to our advantage. The beauty of this system is that there is no physical link between the photons and thus no way to tap into the data being transmitted. No snooping on your next Facebook chat then!

With these three elements it should be possible to build one heck of a computer. It will be fast and safe from prying eyes that wish to keep taps on your online activity. The overwhelming question though that is on any geek's lips will be: "But can it run Crysis?" I hazard a guess that the folks at Crytek will do their damnest to bring even this monster computer to its knees. And they will probably succeed. Which is a good thing: there's no sense in resting on one's laurels. On to computer revolution 5.0!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why Mac developers have to embrace the app store

Apple has launched the Mac app store and now it is as easy to buy applications for your Mac as it is for your iPhone. Users cheer but some developers take a more reserved stance. As was the case with the app store for iOS devices, the restrictions Apple enforces on an app before it can be admitted to the hallowed halls of the Mac app store can be rather crippling. 

Some of the rules are: No access escalation, i.e. no super-user privileges for apps and no use of private API's; Automatic multi-machine license due to consumer focus: the Apple ID of the user is the key to app use. This is great for users but wrecks many a developer's license model; Auto updates from within the app are a no-no, only Apple's app store update system may be used; Apple will not allow paid upgrades. An upgrade therefore is a new app which has to be approved again and must be delivered in full; No support for two versions of the same app so no supporting older systems in future. This is going to put some developers who like to help their customers by supporting legacy software in a bad light even if it is not their fault.

The Mac app store is a 1.0 product. Apple often starts off fiercely restrictive and relaxes a bit after a while. This has been true for the app store for iOS devices and probably will be true for the Mac app store as well. That is why some developers choose to wait and see where it all goes.

Where it all goes can be guessed at, though. 1 million downloads on the first day is a good indicator where it will go as far as the consumer is concerned. The ease with which software can be found and installed is compelling and all the above mentioned niggles are firmly placed in the developer's camp. The everyday user of the Mac is loving the experience.

Apart from the ease of use, the consumer has another expectation from an Apple run app store: cheap apps that do one thing very well. In general, software does not have to be as expensive as some developers want us to believe. Apple's own apps are cheap and cheerful. The iWork apps (Pages, Numbers and Keynote) are $14,99 each and offer all most of us need. No need for other more expensive office suites on our Macs. And Apple has slashed the price of Aperture to $79,00 which makes Adobe's Lightroom look a tad overpriced. In general users will expect their apps to be easy to install, user friendly and reasonably priced.

These expectations stem from the fact that the average user will not make all the distinctions a developer will want to make. To the average user an app is an app is an app. And bought at the Mac app store it has to be a particular kind of experience, regardless who developed the app.

The ease of use and the integration into the operating system of the Mac app store means that it will become the de-facto place to buy Mac apps. Those developers that are not willing to dance to Apple's tune will find it harder and harder to sell their apps in any sort of volume. The ecosystem will become self regulating without Apple having to shut off the Mac to other ways of distributing software, which they are not doing incidentally. Install through DVD or proprietary online store is still very much an option. So Adobe can continue to charge their loyal customers vast amounts of money for upgrades every year. But whether they will continue to be a major player on the Mac platform that way? I have my doubts. A lot of young, smart developers are waiting in the wings to take on the big boys and the Mac app store may just give them the distribution channel they need. And if you need more proof of that I only need to mention Angry Birds, the game EA wishes they had thought of.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

When calamity strikes, authorities falter and show 1.0 behaviour

A big fire at a storing and packing plant for dangerous chemicals held our little country spellbound yesterday. Photo's and video's show billowing clouds of thick black smoke and fireball explosions.

All day the question everyone asked was of course: how toxic was the smoke and should we all upgrade our life insurance policies? I am glad to say the authorities measured the air quality constantly and there was no danger to the public. Those living in the path of the smoke cloud should however keep their windows and doors closed. Oh, and due to the rain that began falling it was advised to keep pets and cattle indoors as the particles brought down by the rain might stick to the paws of furry and feathery friends and cause illness. Also it was advised to clean shoes before entering a house should you have to go outside. But there was no danger to the public.

Meanwhile the crisis website that was set up for just such calamities and should be able to handle 10 million hits every 5 minutes was down. The municipality where the fire raged has a Twitter account but it was strangely quiet. Information about the toxic cloud was sketchy and bolstered by rumours and inconclusive results from fire department measurement teams.

The fire is now doused. There is no more toxic smoke billowing and so all is well that ends well. Ends well? Let's wait and see. I am very curious to see if no strange and unaccountable diseases start springing up in the vicinity of the fire in the coming years. I am also curious to see how our government is going to handle this affair.

Because if no health risks ensued from the burning of these stored chemicals why is the disposal of these same chemicals such a big problem? Burning them seems a great solution, right?

Twitter was buzzing yesterday and so were the comment streams on various news sites. People felt they were lied to by the authorities. Or at the very least treated like little children. Tell the truth, many wrote. Even if the truth is that you don't know. I wonder how much WikiLeaks and other Internet bell ringing affairs have educated the public but not the authorities. I wonder at how little the authorities realise that the public is much wiser these days and the old ways of 'behind closed doors government' may not work anymore.

The way the authorities handled the information stream yesterday during a local calamity proves that they are thoroughly 1.0 in a world that is speeding towards the upgrade from 2.0. Open government may not be what politicians want but just as our - the humble citizen's - privacy is dead, so is the ivory tower of government crumbling. They better learn to rule with open visor quickly.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

And we're back

The holidays done and dusted, we're back for more second opinions on current topics. I removed the "New edition every Wednesday and Friday" tag line. New posts will now occur whenever a topic gets my goat enough to vent a second opinion about. So the posts will become irregular, but still irreverent and unconventional. Hence the new tag line.

I trust that arbitrary occasion called 'the new year' will bring much to write about. After all, the year counter going up one does not make humanity any wiser or more morally sound and I hope you will stick with me as you have done in the previous months.

Watch this space!

 - Henk