Anglican Samizdat

May 3, 2010

BumpTop bought by Google

Filed under: Computers — David Jenkins @ 10:01 am

Having worked on mainframes for over over 40 years, the idea, proposed 20 years ago, that much of a computer’s processing power would be devoted to the user interface seemed to me to be derisory; real computer users don’t need a fancy user interface, they type into a monochrome 3270 terminal.

That is what has happened, of course, and the iPad is a good example: it doesn’t really do much, but it does it with such flair that both computer nerds and normal people want one.

BumpTop outdoes the iPad, it is Canadian, and it has been bought by Google:

Google has acquired BumpTop, a Toronto-based tech startup that built a 3-D computer desktop that makes files behave like physical objects.

Neither Google nor BumpTop disclosed details of the deal, but the Globe and Mail said the purchase price was believed to be between $30 million and $45 million.


April 8, 2010

Memristors: the 4th electronic component

Filed under: Computers — David Jenkins @ 3:44 pm

The building blocks of electronic circuits are resistors, capacitors and inductors; they have been around for a while. Although a 4th component – a memristor (short for memory resistor) – was postulated 40 years ago, until recently no-one had managed to make one that functioned usefully. Memristors act as tiny (very tiny – around 3 nanometres) switches. Why is this important? Because computers are made of millions of tiny silicon based switches; the smaller the switch, the faster the computer. The most advanced transistors today are around 30 – 40 nanometres which is approaching the physical limit for such devices.

Memristors have the potential for creating faster processors and denser memory than is possible with silicon. The first application will be high capacity flash drives:

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Hewlett-Packard scientists on Thursday are to report advances in the design of a new class of diminutive switches capable of replacing transistors as computer chips shrink closer to the atomic scale.

The devices, known as memristors, or memory resistors, were conceived in 1971 by Leon O. Chua, an electrical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, but they were not put into effect until 2008 at the H.P. lab here.

They are simpler than today’s semiconducting transistors, can store information even in the absence of an electrical current and, according to a report in Nature, can be used for both data processing and storage applications.

The researchers previously reported in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they had devised a new method for storing and retrieving information from a vast three-dimensional array of memristors. The scheme could potentially free designers to stack thousands of switches in a high-rise fashion, permitting a new class of ultradense computing devices even after two-dimensional scaling reaches fundamental limits.

Memristor-based systems also hold out the prospect of fashioning analog computing systems that function more like biological brains, Dr. Chua said.

“Our brains are made of memristors,” he said, referring to the function of biological synapses. “We have the right stuff now to build real brains.”

In an interview at the H.P. research lab, Stan Williams, a company physicist, said that in the two years since announcing working devices, his team had increased their switching speed to match today’s conventional silicon transistors. The researchers had tested them in the laboratory, he added, proving they could reliably make hundreds of thousands of reads and writes.

That is a significant hurdle to overcome, indicating that it is now possible to consider memristor-based chips as an alternative to today’s transistor-based flash computer memories, which are widely used in consumer devices like MP3 players, portable computers and digital cameras.

“Not only do we think that in three years we can be better than the competitors,” Dr. Williams said. “The memristor technology really has the capacity to continue scaling for a very long time, and that’s really a big deal.”

As the semiconductor industry has approached fundamental physical limits in shrinking the size of the devices that represent digital 1’s and 0’s as on and off states, it has touched off an international race to find alternatives.

New generations of semiconductor technology typically advance at three-year intervals, and today the industry can see no further than three and possibly four generations into the future.

The most advanced transistor technology today is based on minimum feature sizes of 30 to 40 nanometers — by contrast a biological virus is typically about 100 nanometers — and Dr. Williams said that H.P. now has working 3-nanometer memristors that can switch on and off in about a nanosecond, or a billionth of a second.

He said the company could have a competitor to flash memory in three years that would have a capacity of 20 gigabytes a square centimeter.

This is how it works:

February 27, 2010

Apple using child labour

Filed under: Computers — David Jenkins @ 2:11 pm
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Apple’s Steve Jobs believes in trendy causes like equality and fundamental rights and, for that reason, donated $100k to support homosexual marriage in California:

Steve Jobs’ company Apple Inc. released a statement in October 2008 opposing Proposition 8 and donating $100,000 to the No on 8 campaign. Said Apple, “[We] strongly believe that a person’s fundamental rights — including the right to marry — should not be affected by their sexual orientation.”

Oddly enough, until the prospect of bad publicity loomed large, Jobs’ enthusiasm for fundamental rights did not extend to avoiding the use of child labour in the making of iPods and iPhones:

Technology giant Apple has admitted that child labour has been employed at some of the factories that build its iPods, computers and mobile phones.

An audit found that at least eleven 15-year-old children were found to be working in three factories that supply Apple in the last year.

It said that child workers were now no longer being used at the sites, or were no longer underage.

High-tech piety is no match for profit.

February 3, 2010

Internet addiction can cause depression

Filed under: Computers — David Jenkins @ 9:31 am

So turn your computer off now:

There is a strong link between heavy internet use and depression, UK psychologists have said.

The study, reported in the journal Psychopathology, found 1.2% of people surveyed were “internet addicts”, and many of these were depressed.

The Leeds University team stressed they could not say one necessarily caused the other, and that most internet users did not suffer mental health problems.

The conclusions were based on 1,319 responses to an on-line questionnaire.

At least this explains some of the comments I get here.

February 1, 2010

The end of algorithmic computing

Filed under: Computers — David Jenkins @ 12:40 am

Physics limits computing power:

IBM engineers are currently putting the finishing touches on a beast of a computer.

The machine, code-named Blue Waters and set for delivery to the University of Illinois later this year, is the product of work completed in myriad IBM offices around the world. At 10 petaflops, it will be about five times faster than the fastest supercomputer in the world today.

To get a sense of how fast a peta-scale computer is, think of every human being on Earth doing a million calculations each. A peta-scale computer can do that every second. This is the kind of computer you use if you want to measure what every atom in a person’s digestive system is doing, or if you are trying to predict what the Earth’s climate will look like in 100 years.

Some time around the end of this decade, one of the most profound transformations in the history of computer science will begin to take shape. It will simply become impossible to improve computing power at the rate it has advanced for the past three decades. The ceiling won’t be a result of cost – in their current configurations, computer chips can only be made so small before running into the basic laws of physics.

The implications for the computer industry are enormous. It may be years away, but software programmers, circuit makers and computer manufacturers are nonetheless staring at a brick wall in the distance.

It is interesting to note that, even at 10 petaflops, or 10,000,000,000,000,000 calculations per second, a computer cannot do a convincing imitation of a human being. This reinforces Roger Penrose’s contention that algorithmic computing will never produce intelligence.

It is fashionable to believe that science has the answer to every question; it doesn’t, of course, since even a five year-old can ask a question that science cannot answer: “why are we here?”. Another question that science can’t answer – and I suspect will never be able to answer – is, “what is mind”.

A Christian believes mind exists because mankind is made in God’s image.  A scientist has no answer and builds peta-flop computers instead.

January 27, 2010

Supersizing the iPhone gets you an iPad

Filed under: Computers — David Jenkins @ 3:57 pm

The Wall Street Journal noted: “The last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it.” Steve Jobs definitely won’t repeat the success of the first tablet; whether he will even repeat the success of the iPhone remains to be seen:

Apple has finally launched its long-awaited portable computer, the iPad. And one more thing: the full version, if it becomes available to Canadians at all, may cost a lot to use.

Chief executive Steve Jobs announced the device — basically a supersized iPod Touch — on Wednesday to a crowd of Apple faithful at an event in San Francisco. The iPad is about the size of a hardcover book, half an inch thick and with a 9.7-inch multi-touch screen, similar to the iPod Touch and iPhone. The device can surf the web using its Safari browser, send emails via an on-screen QWERTY keypad, play music, videos and games, and display e-books.

“We want to kick off 2010 by introducing a magical and revolutionary product today,” Jobs said to a cheering audience.

He said the device has several wireless connectivity options, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and some models will have 3G cellular capability. In the United States, iPad buyers will be able to get a data plan that allows for 250 MB of data usage for $14.99 US, or $29.99 for unlimited usage.

Jobs called the deal with AT&T a “breakthrough” as most U.S. cellphone carriers charge around $60 a month for unlimited data usage. In Canada, cellphone carriers typically charge around $60 (Cdn) for about 3 GB of usage while unlimited plans are rare.

Apple has not yet reached deals with cellphone carriers internationally, which includes Canada, but hopes to be able to announce plans in other countries by June or July.

The 16 GB device without 3G will cost $499 US, ranging up to the full 3G-enabled 64 GB version for $829. The Wi-Fi-only versions will go on sale worldwide in 60 days, Jobs said, with the 3G versions being released in the United States and “selected countries” a month after that, which may or may not include Canada.

The device can run all iPhone apps and boasts up to 10 hours of video battery life.

I doubt that non-nerd people will be prepared to pay over $500 for an “incredible web browsing experience” and with only 10 hours of battery life and an LCD screen, it is not going compete well with dedicated book readers with paper-like e-ink and a battery that will run for 2 weeks.

It runs the iPhone OS which probably means no effective multitasking and no application access to many kernel functions: for example, an application will be unable to set an alarm to wake the device up.

Still, when it first appeared, I didn’t think the iPod touch would work as a PDA either – once Laridian released Pocket Bible for it, though, I bought one and haven’t touched my Palm TX since.

January 26, 2010

Google fixes its Islam “bug”

Filed under: Computers,Islam — David Jenkins @ 12:05 am
Tags: ,

After someone noticed that Google helpfully completes searches for “Christianity is” but mysteriously does not do Islam the same favour, Google confessed that they had a bug. It had nothing to do with Google executives being gutless poltroons quaking in fear at the prospect of being decapitated by a maniacal Muslim. Nothing at all.

It only took 3 weeks for the executives to install new security systems and fix the “bug”:

January 13, 2010

Google the Good

Filed under: Computers — David Jenkins @ 3:54 pm

Google has made an announcement about its operations in China:

Like many other well-known organizations, we face cyber attacks of varying degrees on a regular basis. In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident–albeit a significant one–was something quite different.

First, this attack was not just on Google. As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses–including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors–have been similarly targeted. We are currently in the process of notifying those companies, and we are also working with the relevant U.S. authorities.

Second, we have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Based on our investigation to date we believe their attack did not achieve that objective. Only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.

Third, as part of this investigation but independent of the attack on Google, we have discovered that the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties. These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users’ computers.

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

All large companies like to display a veneer of honesty and self-sacrificing largesse, but it is almost always lip-service: when it comes to a choice between principle and profit, principle is the loser. So it is heartening to see a company make a decision that places principle above profit. Now if Google could just fix its Islam “bug”.

January 12, 2010

Anglican vicar blesses gadgets

Filed under: Computers,homosexuality — David Jenkins @ 2:16 pm
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A Church of England vicar is blessing gadgets:

Vicar gives high-tech blessing to mobile phones, laptops and BlackBerries.

A vicar has blessed the mobile phones and laptops of city workers in a church ceremony.

The Rev Canon David Parrott blessed a pile of laptops and smart phones on the altar of London’s 17th-century St Lawrence Jewry church.

The ritual was an effort to remind the capital’s busy office workers that God’s grace can reach them in many ways, he said.

Blessed be: The congregation hold up their mobile phones and Blackberries as Canon David Parrot conducts a service at the City of London Corporation’s church, St Lawrence Jewry, on Monday

‘It’s the technology that is our daily working tool, and it’s a technology we should bless,’ Rev Parrott said.

What exactly does it mean to “bless” a collection of chips on a printed circuit board? Very little, I suspect; coincidentally, Rev. Keith Nethery, media relations officer for the Anglican Diocese of Huron, has been wriggling vigorously here trying to explain why, in the Diocese of Huron, it is kosher to Celebrate a same-sex marriage but not to Bless it. Would he have a problem blessing a Mac running Vista one wonders, or would it be sufficiently deviant to be merely Celebrated.

Most people would probably choose to have their computer exorcised rather than blessed. Come to think of it, perhaps that could apply to same-sex marriages, too.

November 24, 2009

The politically correct Apple

Filed under: Computers,Political Correctness — David Jenkins @ 5:17 pm
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Although I use a PC, I like some of Apple’s gadgets – I have a 64Gb iPod touch that serves as an mp3 player and a PDA – because they exhibit an enviable flair for design and ease-of-use; unfortunately, when they break they are hard to fix because the price for ease-of-use is inaccessibility to the contraption’s inner workings. The really irritating thing about Apple, though, is its nauseating political correctness: type “wife” into an Apple word processor and it helpfully suggests using “spouse” instead.

And now we have this:

Apple may refuse to fix your computer if you’re a smoker.

It’s well known that Apple CEO Steve Jobs is a bit of a health nut, but this may be taking things too far.

If you’re a smoker and a Mac user, Apple may refuse to fix your computer.

Consumerist is reporting that two Apple customers from different parts of the United States have seen their Applecare warranty packages voided because the computers were used by smokers and contained tar and second hand smoke.

Apparently, Apple won’t let its technicians work on computers that come from smoking households due to risks associated with second hand smoke.

November 9, 2009

Call of Duty 2: Modern Warfare

Filed under: Computers — David Jenkins @ 7:55 pm

Is a videogame that is inflaming controversy because of its realistic graphic violence and its placing of the player into the situation where he has to kill innocent civilians:

Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 leaked footage set to ignite controversy

The leaked footage from the forthcoming Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 shows the player killing unarmed civilians with a group of terrorists at what looks like LAX airport in Los Angeles. The scenes are likely to be criticised by family interest groups and media watchdogs and will possibly turn the developer and publisher into the latest lightning rods for video game controversy.

I remember many years ago teaching a computer course at Bombardier Aerospace. The best part of it was that, in the lunch break,  I was able to play with their flight simulators at a time when geometry engines cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and were somewhat out of the reach of Atari 800 enthusiasts. My interest in computer graphics hasn’t waned – I wish I could say the same for my reflexes – so I will probably get hold of the new COD; I’ll try not to let it turn me into a violent madman, though.

August 2, 2009

The Simulation Argument and Christianity

Filed under: Christianity,Computers — David Jenkins @ 5:40 pm
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Nick Bostrom, Department of Philosophy, Oxford University has written an interesting paper, Are You Living in a Computer Simulation.

This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation. A number of other consequences of this result are also discussed.

It is certainly the case that one of the 3 propositions has to be true, but the interesting one is (3) where, if it is true, Bostrom argues convincingly that most of us now are likely to be simulated minds.

The objection that actually being in a simulation undermines the simulation argument is addressed thus:

A. If we are in a simulation, then the underlying reality is such as to permit simulations, it contains at least one such simulation, and (3) is true.

B. If we are not in a simulation, then the empirical evidence noted in the simulation argument is veridical taken at face value, suggesting that a technologically mature civilization would have the ability to create vast number of simulations; and consequently, by the simulation argument, there is a very high probability at least one of the disjuncts in (1)-(3) is true.

Which seems an adequate rebuttal unless simulated reasoning is different from ground-zero reasoning – and nothing compels it to be the same; in this  case, the rebuttal only has meaning within the simulation, resulting in the possibility that A. may not be true outside the simulation, falsifying the rebuttal.

Going back to the 3 initial propositions, only (3) yields an interesting result; but is (3) possible? There are a number of problems. For (3) to be possible, “[a] common assumption in the philosophy of mind is that of substrate-independence” must be true. For it to be true, mind must be containable by the material: no part of the mind can be numinous. The Christian view is that a person, including the mind, is created in God’s image and, while it is dependant on the brain in this life, it will survive the decomposition of the brain in the next. From the Christian perspective, mind even though it uses the material, cannot be fully contained by it and  is, therefore, not substrate-independent in the sense used by Bostrom – it cannot be moved to a computer.

The second problem is found in the nature of computers themselves. If we take the non-Christian view that the mind has no existence outside of the material, could it be moved to a machine? In The Emperor’s New Mind, Roger Penrose makes the point that all digital computers now operate according to algorithms, rules which the computer follows step by step. However, there are things that cannot be calculated algorithmically. We can discover them and know them to be true but clearly we are using something – insight for example – other than calculation; they are so little understood that they cannot be duplicated by computers. In other words, current computers are elaborate adding machines with basic logic abilities; no matter how fast they run, they will be unable to create. A computer will never be able to algorithmically produce Bach’s Bm Mass or Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov without the works being part of the initial programming. It could be argued that, while ground-zero minds have creative ability, simulated minds do not but have been pre-programmed with the fruits of creativity and the ability to indulge in sufficient self-deception to believe they are the creative products of the simulated mind. If this is the case, though, the simulated minds would not be minds at all: they would be imitations, detailed simulacra unable to do anything other than follow their initial program.

So, although one of the three opening propositions must be true, it can’t be (3), even though (3) yields the best science fiction. Of the fiction noted on the simulation web site, Tad Williams’ Otherland series is  missing – it is one of the more entertaining series of novels to make use of this idea.

Perhaps the most pertinent conclusion one can draw from all this is that the preoccupations of modern philosophy are largely vanity.


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