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