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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Radio Transmission

I did the second of what I hope will be a regular spot on the radio last night, talking technology on a local BBC station. We covered a few different topics including WiFi, MP3 players, and Satellite Navigation. Preparing for the show got me thinking about how close we already are to the connected-home I talked about in December, where all forms of entertainment are available somewhere on the WAN.

Take Telewest’s Teleport service for example, something I looked in to for my sister this morning. It gives you access to a massive library of films and TV on demand. Sky BT, Channel 4 and others are all launching, or have already launched, their own Video on Demand packages.

Doing some research for a client this morning reminded me just how reliant on the web we already are for written materials. Despite having access to a library of magazines, my first port of call to find some recent news stories was Google.

Given the dominance of downloads in the music market now, it seems the delivery infrastructure for all of our media moving online is already in place. Videos, written media and music are all readily available. The technology and the services are almost there, but two things are holding us back: devices and DRM.

I’ve yet to see Apple’s iTV demonstrated but I have little doubt the interface will be pretty slick. Yet it still relies on a PC or Mac to get the content in the first place: the interface isn’t quite good enough for you to browse the enormity of iTunes from 10ft away.

The problem with iTunes of course, is that whatever you download will be wrapped in a fairly restrictive DRM layer. Want to shunt that movie on to your Archos Jukebox, or over to your Netgear EVA in a different room? Sorry! No can do.

I don’t have a problem with DRM in principle: people want to get paid for their services/products, and there are plenty of unscrupulous people out there. Not so much people who want things for free, but people who want to make money out of other people’s property. So why not apply some control over how your products/services are used.

The issue comes in the implementation: almost all forms of DRM are proprietary and the ability to licence them is either unavailable or unpleasantly expensive. In an industry with tight margins, a few pence per unit can make all the difference.

Given that I can’t see Apple and Microsoft coming to an arrangement on a shared DRM infrastructure that will be freely licenced to other manufacturers, the only real answer in the short term is to give up on DRM. As long as the purchase of media is made fairly friction-free, the vast majority of people would choose to buy rather than steal.

Part of making the purchase friction free is sorting out the devices: access to very high bandwidth is coming to both devices in the home and on the road. Now the manufacturers just need to get the interfaces sorted so that anyone can find, choose and access their media — whatever device and service they might buy it through, and wherever they might choose to access it.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Weathering the Storm

This weekend I got well and truly stuck. Snowed-in to be specific. Not something that happens often in the UK. Even more freakishly it only took around ten minutes of snow to make three different routes out of the valley I was in unpassable, at least as far as my car was concerned (low-profile tyres and a torque-y diesel engine do not make a happy combination for driving on snow).

It got me thinking about climate change — most immediately how that is a much better name for what is happening than Global Warming. Kudos to the PR team who engineered that one.

Looking at the fairly basic, but very informative BBC Online pages about climate change, you can see that it will probably mean three things for the UK. More flooding, higher average temperatures, and more wind and rain. Given that our architecture isn’t designed for these conditions — as demonstrated by the casualties of last week’s winds — and that there simply isn’t enough space in the UK to move everyone to higher ground, we’re going to need some pretty innovative solutions.

House design could change in some fairly interesting ways. For example, roof structures will need to be redesigned and refurbished so that they are less susceptible to winds and torrential downpours. Thousands of houses in the UK have ageing roofs that wind can easily get under, and water can easily get through. Perhaps the roofing business is a good place to be right now? Especially if you can combine roof reinforcement with photovoltaic panels, which are slowly falling in price.

Flood plains are fairly common in the UK — too common for everyone to just move out of them. So will we see areas of land artificially raised? Or perhaps streets and houses built on stilts/piles that take them above water? If not, it might be time to start shopping for a houseboat, if you live near a river.

Heavy rains are bizarrely difficult for the water companies to capture. The fact that parts of the UK have only just come out of a hosepipe ban, tells us something is going to need to be done about the water infrastructure. Not only must we waste less, we must become more efficient at capturing what does fall in heavy rains.

Power infrastructure too will need to be reinforced. Given the relatively light lashing (by future standards) the UK received, it was disturbing how many people were without power, and for how long.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Highlander Syndrome

According to Aubrey de Grey, the science already exists for humans to live more than 1,000 years. The question is, would we want to?

I, for one, am a fan. Life already seems like a rush, with so many things I want to do getting squeezed in to the limited time available. Assuming I could solve the financial restrictions, it would be much nicer to take my time about things: work two or three days a week and devote more time to all the little pleasures in life.

I’d spend longer at the gym (or maybe doing other, more enjoyable forms of exercise); enjoy a proper breakfast every day rather than a bowl of cereal at my desk; take time to read the papers, in fact just to read more of anything.

Not only could we devote more time to the little things in our every day lives, we could also try out more things over the course of those lives. Marriage might still be a strong institution but your bachelor years might last until you are 200 or more. Instead of one or two careers we could have 10 or 20.

I’d hope people might also be wiser. There’s no guarantee of course, and the supposed wisdom that comes with age sometimes seems more like narrow-mindedness and prejudice. But we can dream. A government laden with wise old men and women who have had time to appreciate the world and its people, and can make rational, objective judgements on our behalf.

That’s the utopian vision, but the potential downsides of such a long life are also numerous. Population for a start: we’d have to start thinking about colonising other worlds pretty quickly. Health too: few people would want to spend 70 years living and 930 years dying.

My rosy assessment of marriage is also likely inaccurate: we’d have to adjust culturally to the idea of a series of long partnerships throughout our lives (already happening to some extent).

The gap between rich and poor would become more marked, with the difference in lifespan being marked by centuries rather than decades.

Plenty of things to consider.

On balance I’d still love to live for a thousand years, for all the experiences I will otherwise miss out on. Although my love of beer and pies will probably limit my chances of being one of the first kilogenerians.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Science vs Spirituality

On January 9th people drawn from various religious groups protested outside the House of Lords against The Sexual Orientation Regulations. This is a fairly simple set of rules that say you can’t discriminate against someone on the grounds of their sexual orientation. The protesting religious groups feel it is their right to continue descriminating against people on the grounds that (by their interpretation of the relevant books) their respective deities said so.

This for me is a great example of the science vs spirituality debate that will have a large part to play in defining our future.

A hundred years ago, there would have been no question about who was ‘right’. The idea of protecting people’s right to be gay, and to be treated equally to others, would have been unthinkable. Then the church had greater power over the state than it does today, and this would have been seen as a ‘moral’ issue. The word of god much more important than the ‘lifestyle choice’ of a few ‘deviants’.

Today we know that to be gay is no more a lifestyle choice than being black or white (however much some might try to dispute this). There’s a lot more learning to be done to understand the real nature of sexuality, but the science is strong enough for most Western governments to offer gay people and couples equal rights. Science overrules religion (now seen as a ‘lifestyle choice’).

The debate will continue, but the conflict between science and spirituality ranges much wider than just equal rights. The two groups are often on opposing sides of issues such as medical research, education, and foreign policy. Who wins these arguments is likely to be a defining factor in both the rate and direction of progress for the human race.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Windows: Serving the Home

Bill Gates showcased the new Windows Home Server today at CES. Initially touted as a super-media server, it will also offer automated back-up and file sharing for households with multiple PCs.

Like the media centre PCs — ably described by one commentator here as “an exercise in compromises” — this sounds like a product before its time. Anyone who is enough of a geek…sorry “early adopter”, to want/need one of these already has one. Generally it’s an old PC with a few added hard drives running an old OS or some Linux variant. It’s used for backing up data away from the more vulnerable main machines and maybe sharing music around the house (not as easy as it should be). Some people might take it a little further, perhaps installing a fully air cooled, custom-built, 19in rack in their understairs cupboard, but for that you have to be REAL geek…

Anyway, that’s not to say that a time won’t come for these machines. In fact I think they have rather better prospects than the media PC — at least in its current incarnation.

There are a few reasons for this. Firstly we will increasingly want some form of digital media device in each room. Just twenty or thirty years ago it was considered quite extravagant to have two televisions; now every kid has one in their room, along with a hi-fi, and probably a DVD player/console. A unified terminal for accessing digital media has to be next.

At over £1,000 for a new one, there is no way every kid is going to have a media PC alongside their console/PC in their room. It might be an older PC with some media features, but it won’t be the dedicated set-top box-like sleek designs being touted by the major manufacturers. To get those down to every-room prices they would need to be mass produced from common components, and designed for low build costs. Just like a modern set-top box…or a console. OK the Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 are expensive today but shipped in the right numbers and with less experimental technologies (e.g. Blu-Ray) the price of a simple media/games player component could easily fall to under £100. Microsoft also announced IPTV software for the Xbox today, bringing this theory closer to reality as I was halfway through writing this entry.

Once you have what is effectively a thin client in each room, you need something to serve them and this home server fits the bill. While the thinner devices might have some storage on board, why keep multiple copies of your music/video collection in each room when you can store it — and back it up — centrally? And with video, and possibly also audio, going high definition, tens or even hundreds of gigabytes is soon going to seem as ridiculous as the 40MB hard drive on my old Amstrad does today.

The second reason I think this product’s time will come is that media players will not be the only thin-ish clients in the home. I’ve already talked about processors entering all sorts of objects, and these processors will likely need a hub around which to coalesce if they are to prove truly beneficial to us. For example, the mythical internet fridge would be a lot more powerful if you don’t have to tell it your dietary requirements but rather it learns them from centrally held profiles that can also inform your heating and air conditioning, lighting, washing machine, dishwasher and vacuuming robots. Someone in the family suffer from eczema with a sensitivity to dustmites and dairy products? Your next shopping list suggested by the internet fridge might include soya-milk as well as special filters for your vacuum cleaner. The vacuuming robot might automatically run an extra programme in the prone person’s room every week. And when the person is out of their bedroom the air conditioning might drop the temperature to low levels to minimise the reproduction of mites.

In short as a hub for PCs, the Windows Home Server is a pretty redundant product and only those with an absurb ratio of technical understanding to cash are going to shell out for one of the new HP devices. But over time these devices will gain a role that is much more than the simple storage and streaming devices they are today.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Back to the BOTF: Energy

Right, back on my favourite hobby horse for another ride: energy.

The BOTF looked at four energy sources: wind, water, solar…and fusion.

The last one still seems very much science fiction rather than fact. For all the successes of the JET programme, and forthcoming ITER, you still have to put in a lot more energy than you get out for fusion to occur. More energy sink than energy source then. (I also seem to remember a problem with the toroidal magnetic fields twisting and lifting tons of equipment off the ground, but I can’t find any evidence of this on the web. Any clues greatly appreciated).

It is the other three sources, and their lack of employment that vexes me.

For example, in the UK we are currently considering a massive building programme for new nuclear power stations to meet our growing energy needs as we try and ween ourselves off coal and shut down the ageing Magnox reactors. Yet we find ourselves falling out (pun intended) with Iran over its desire to build nuclear reactors because of the potential side effects that it supports the creation of nuclear weapons.

Imagine if all the money the British government had poured in to supporting a loss-making nuclear industry had instead been poured in to research into renewable energy. Today instead of negotiating a fine line with Iran over whether they really need nuclear power, and why we are allowed to have it but they aren’t, we could demonstrate that no-one needs it. If Iran really wanted nuclear weapons rather than energy, its government would have to say so explicitly.

Simplistic? Maybe, but given the amount of progress the renewable energy industry has made with just tiny levels of investment, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect much greater advances with significantly more investment.

Wind power particularly has made great strides. Small turbines are now available in B+Q (although not with my suggested packaging of the government grant), which brings us back to the theme of my last post: self-sufficiency. If householders all start putting up wind turbines of our own accord we will reduce our reliance on the energy companies. They might take notice and finally start to invest a bit more heavily in technologies that will reduce our reliance on oil and dirty, expensive, nuclear fission.

Then we might be on a slightly better footing when we start telling other countries that they’re not allowed nuclear power because it’s dangerous.

Tom Cheesewright