A Project Observed

July 27th, 2014

Robin McKie has written a nice piece about our Pico project in the Observer.

The article is here.

And here’s our introductory video, if you’re interested and didn’t see it a few months back.

All-you-can-eat books

July 26th, 2014

John Naughton’s Observer column this week discusses the leaked plans for Amazon’s ‘Kindle Unlimited’ service.

Amazon’s move will be as discombobulating for the book publishing industry as the advent of Spotify was for the music industry.

The analogy is a good one. Creative content is being commoditised: as a rough approximation, you can’t make money from selling music any more, only from going on tours. You can’t make a living from selling photos, only from running photography workshops. And for some time it’s been pretty rare for anyone to be the family bread-winner by writing books — you also need to teach creative writing at the local Further-Ed college — but I think it’s going to become much rarer. Expect authors to start charging a lot more for their appearances at literary festivals.

And, lest you think, “Oh, this isjust a wild idea from somebody in marketing that was leaked by accident”, it has now been launched in the US. Six quid a month for all the books you can read, available instantly.

Just think what those monks in the scriptoria would have said.


July 23rd, 2014

We visited a fine Berkshire hotel at the weekend, and I did like this natty little Lagonda in the car park…

Vintage Lagonda

Don’t look a gift job in the mouth

July 14th, 2014

There’s a wonderful-sounding position offered on one of the University mailing lists:

Equine Ambulatory Veterinarian (Maternity Cover)

I expect they’re looking for someone who specialises in a horse’s gait. Or someone who rides around in a horse ambulance?

But perhaps not. It’s much more satisfying to think that the University of Cambridge has always traditionally employed a walking midwife for horses, perhaps one of a small team of pedestrian veterinary specialists, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to apply for one of these exclusive posts.

Visualising your Paperless Workflow

July 12th, 2014

On episode 191 of Mac Power Users, I described how I found it useful to be able to visualise the various steps of my automated ‘paperless workflow’. (Something I also wrote about here on Status-Q last year.)

A few people asked for more details, so here’s a 9-minute screencast going into some of the details.

Also available on Vimeo for the media cognoscenti!


June 29th, 2014

Docker logoA geeky post. You have been warned.

I wanted to make a brief reference to my favourite new technology: Docker. It’s brief because this is far too big a topic to cover in a single post, but if you’re involved in any kind of Linux development activity, then trust me, you want to know about this.

What is Docker?

Docker is a new and friendly packaging of a collection of existing technologies in the Linux kernel. As a crude first approximation, a Docker ‘container’ is like a very lightweight virtual machine. Something between virtualenv and VirtualBox. Or, as somebody very aptly put it, “chroot on steroids”. It makes use of LXC (Linux Containers), cgroups, kernel namespaces and AUFS to give you most of the benefit of running several separate machines, but they are all in fact using the same kernel, and some of the operating system facilities, of the host. The separation is good enough that you can, for example, run a basic Ubuntu 12.04, and Ubuntu 14.04, and a Suse environment, all on a Centos server.

“Fine”, you may well say, “but I can do all this with VirtualBox, or VMWare, or Xen – why would I need Docker?”

Well, the difference is that Docker containers typically start up in milliseconds instead of seconds, and more importantly, they are so lightweight that you can run hundreds of them on a typical machine, where using full VMs you would probably grind to a halt after about half a dozen. (This is mostly because the separate worlds are, in fact, groups of processes within the same kernel: you don’t need to set aside a gigabyte of memory for each container, for example.)

Docker has been around for about a year and a half, but it’s getting a lot of attention at present partly because it has just hit version 1.0 and been declared ready for production use, and partly because, at the first DockerCon conference, held just a couple of weeks ago, several large players like Rackspace and Spotify revealed how they were already using and supporting the technology.

Add to this the boot2docker project which makes this all rather nice and efficient to use even if you’re on a Mac or Windows, and you can see why I’m taking time out of my Sunday afternoon to tell you about it!

I’ll write more about this in future, but I think this is going to be rather big. For more information, look at the Docker site, search YouTube for Docker-related videos, and take a look at the Docker blog.

Speaking to the future?

June 22nd, 2014

speakerconesFrom the “Things I should patent but probably won’t” department…

Predictive Loudspeakers

Yesterday, I was talking to a loudspeaker designer, who was describing the mechanical limitations of speaker cones. One of the key problems is that a loudspeaker cone is basically a mass on a spring. Once you give it an impulse, it will then rebound to its original location with a velocity and momentum, and these will all affect the sound that comes immediately afterwards. It also, of course, has its own resonant frequencies. And these factors mean that people have spent a lot of time trying to minimise the mass and resonance of loudspeaker cones or replacing them with complex electrostatic devices, or vibrating ribbons, or whatever.

Now, it occurred to me that as we start to get digital linkups to loudspeakers, we can do something we could never do before: we can predict the future.

At least, we can buffer the digital signals for a while as they come into the loudspeaker. As long as we do this for all of our channels equally, the delay is not usually a problem. (I am thinking primarily about listening to music at home or in a studio; if this was audio for a movie, you’d need to delay the image by the same amount, and it wouldn’t work at all for live PA systems, but bear with me…) We could then look ahead in that buffer and provide an impulse to the loudspeaker cone now based not just on what we want now, but on what we are going to want a few milliseconds down the line. The signal you feed to the speaker would then be the first derivative, or the Laplace transform, or something, of the sound you actually want to come out once delays, masses and spring co-efficients are taken into account.

Now, I’m not a control systems expert, and I don’t know how difficult constructing a dynamic PID-feedback system would be, but this is at least a very controlled environment, and the system could, if needed, be self-monitoring and adapt over time.

Such analysis could, of course, already have been done in other places that have access to the digital stream – like the CD/DVD player – but the earlier stages will not typically have much information about the amps and speakers. Now, however, the trend is towards active speakers which include their own carefully-matched amps, and for digital, even wireless, links replacing the old analog cables. So this becomes quite possible, and the market is ready.

What do you think? Anyone want to invest huge amounts of capital and help me make the speakers of the future? Or is this already available?

Music Nerd

June 17th, 2014

SONOS-PLAY3-and-BRIDGE.jpgLike most people who own Sonos kit, I’m a big fan of my loudspeakers and amps. They work beautifully, and sound great.

However, I suspect most of their users would be less interested than me to discover that by pointing a browser at ip_addr:1400/status I can discover, for example, which version of the Linux kernel each loudspeaker is running, and the fact that they seem to incorporate an accelerometer.

I couldn’t do that with my old record deck, now, could I?

Where is everybody?

June 15th, 2014

If we’re right that there are 100,000 or more intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, and even a fraction of them are sending out radio waves or laser beams or other modes of attempting to contact others, shouldn’t SETI’s satellite array pick up all kinds of signals?

But it hasn’t. Not one. Ever.

Where is everybody?

That question (or a variant of it) is known as The Fermi Paradox, and the above quote is taken from this rather nice and very readable article which outlines some of the big questions and possible answers.

Many thanks to Michael Fraser for the link.

To biblically go where no man has gone before

June 8th, 2014

sparksIt occurs to me that the Book of Job has a persuasive argument for space travel.

Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.

This is surely meant to inspire us to explore the opportunities that zero-gravity has to offer.

Talking of which, why do the crew of the Starship Enterprise always stay on the floor? Even when under attack, when the last photon torpedo has been fired, the shields are out and even the life-support systems are failing, captain, somehow the gravitational field never ceases to function.

I think they have their priorities wrong. Life-support is more important than avoiding weightlessness, people! Especially if, as would seem to be the case, you are born unto trouble.