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The Northern Spy
March 2007

A Random Walk in Computing

Rick Sutcliffe

The Spy notes

recent reports that encryption on Blu-Ray and HD DVD has been broken. He won't bother confirming these stories, because even if they aren't true, they will be. The Spy's Sixth Law: "All data and code can eventually be copied". Copy protection hypothetically serves some short term end other than annoying customers (though the Spy doesn't know what) but in the long run, it's a waste of time and effort. QES (Quite enough said.)

Apparently iSteve is aware of this, for Apple recently released a previously unpublicized missive of his in which he rails against DRM, and offers to remove it from iTunes if record labels would agree. This iRant played to predictable opprobrium from mendacious music and movie moguls, but despite opposition, his comments have an important virtue. They're right.

In a separate flame session, Jobs criticized the U.S. Educational system. "I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way," he opined. 'This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy."

Jobs makes an interesting point. To add gasolene to his conflagration, he could have gone on to observe that in typical educational discussions, teachers, trustees, parents, and government officials all pretend to speak for student interests, but in fact those most concerned have no one to champion excellence in their education. Worse, if they could compare with thirty years ago, they'd understand just how much standards have deteriorated to appease lib-soc demands for equally poor outcomes at any cost. Keep this up, and in a generation there'll be no engineers or scientists with North American schooling.

Speaking of rants,

BillG is reported to have torn a strip off Apple recently for its "Get a Mac" comparison ads, claiming among other things that Apple was lying about relative security risks. Really? Has he been standing too close to the aperture of an N-ray machine? From our vantage, Vista's the gownless evening strap, the product with no "there" there, the pale copy of a competitor that's been there and done that.

Sorry, Bill-0, but in cases like these, envious anger plays as the last refuge of incompetence, an advanced sign of innovative constipation and corporate rigor mortis. It can't buy respect, any more than money can. Not from reviewers, at any rate. Early views on Vista are unenthusiastic, with almost every pundit comparing to Mac OS, often not favourably, and most advising consumers to wait several months to a year before trying it. The Spy concurs. Don't touch this puppy until at least the first maintenance release of the first maintenance release.

Meanwhile, customers aren't waiting to compare Leopard with Vista but voting with their feet, and Mac sales have been growing three times as fast as those of PCs. There's no reason to suppose this will change for the foreseeable future. The Spy's Fourth Law "Marketshare lags mindshare by two to five years"? Apple has barely begun to harvest the fruit from its iPod-induced mindshare. MS has barely begun to see the results of customer dissatisfaction. Steve Ballmer attributes low Vista sales to piracy. Whose?

On the hardware front of the same wars, PC malaise has struck Dell harder than most. Mikey Dell surely regrets a rant of his own, the one in which he suggested Apple should be wound up and its assets distributed to the shareholders. Think iSteve will let him put Leopard on Dells? Perhaps Mikey ought to apply his extensive wisdom to his own suddenly ordinary-looking enterprise.

The iPhone revisited

Nellie's own diatribe last month about programmability issues notwithstanding, the Spy believes the iPhone may be as important as a harbinger as it is in its own right. After all, what is an iPhone but a miniature computer with cell phone technology glued on? Drop cell, add a large hard drive and expand the form factor, and what have you?--a new generation iPod.

"Too tame and obvious. Besides, you said that last month," you counter? Ah, but increase the screen area a little more and you get an iNewton, more still and an iTablet--all without needing to change the OS much, we suspect. In other words, this design ought to make one think consumer product suite, not simply iMotorolaKiller. And with WWDC scheduled to start June 11 this year (much better than the 2006 August time, BTW), with big iron announcements past by then and too early to trumpet Cougar, the venue would be perfect to offer new toys to mollify loyal boys and girls. You read it here first.


The Spy notes in passing the latest upgrade to BBEdit at version 8.6.1, free to recent purchasers, and as usual, always worth having. When doing web site development, he spends more time staring at BBEdit than all other tools combined. No Mac user should be without this program.

OTOH, if you are running a server using MailScanner with ClamAV, and you get a notice from your automatic system updater software telling you to upgrade Clam from 0.87 to 0.90, ignore the advice. The latest Clam is incompatible with MailScanner. Whoops.

And on the gripping hand, Apple appears to be wrapping up development on Leopard, which may be available as early as the end of March. Delicious irony if the knife in Vista's back could be delivered on the Ides instead. As mentioned here before, expect the actual release to closely coincide with a new Mac to play it on--probably a multi-core desktop this time.

It's been a hard day's night

but Apple has finally reached a deal with The Beatles' Apple Corps to end all their trademark disputes. Apple Inc. gets full rights to the Apple name, and may well carry Beatles' music in iTunes, though probably not exclusively.

Perhaps the Spy's had a rough night of his own

but but it seems to him FireFox has lagged lately, so he's taken to using Camino and Safari in preference, except when debugging, when FireBug is more informative than Safari's error windows. Who'd a thunk the browser wars were so far from over?

A new guard on the stairway

as Peter Lewis of what has been Stairways Software announced that Nolobe, a new company formed by FTP client and utility Interarchy lead developer Matthew Drayton, has negotiated an employee buyout and will take over full responsibility for the product he's now worked on these last six of its ten years. Latest version is 8.5.1. A policy change coming? Wait and see.

All technologies eventually hit a glass ceiling

and become obsolete, only to be replaced by others with different limitations. Integrated circuit chips can mount only so many components before suffocating in their own waste heat. Their electrical traces can be made only so narrow before quantum effects morph them into chaostrons. Voltage can be lowered only so much before it becomes impossible to separate signal from noise.

That is, a Von Neumann machine (binary stored code executing in serial steps) is inherently bottlenecked by its own serial architecture, both internally and upon attempting to communicate. Deal with the latter aspect by incorporating more on board memory and you merely exacerbate the other problems.

Thus, once the limits of a given chip technology are approached, the only possible way to increase throughput is by adding more processing units in parallel (multiple cores). For this reason, the Spy has long advocated distributed and multiple processing architectures. We need to get used to designing and programming for a multiprocessing environments, because eventually that's all there'll be. Perhaps he's always considered this too obvious; it should have been one of his earlier laws, but here it is as:

The Spy's eighth law--On speed limits

All VonNeumann bottleneck bypasses traverse parallel routes.
or Parallel processing is the silicon speed ceiling's only workaround.
or When the slowing gets tough, the tough get multiprocessing.

Perhaps this is why he is so intrigued by the recent Intel demonstration of an 80-core chip consuming a mere 62 watts yet processing at teraflop throughput. Far from an actual product, but this is the only way to go, folks. We will need new programming paradigms though, or at least better implementations of some old ones. Perhaps it's time to get some of the old WG13 warhorses back together to design a new programming notation.

Speaking of which, p1's Albert Wiedemann tells me he'll soon release Modula-2 version 9.0 for XCode, and it will generate native universal output. (The current 8.x product outputs C, which then has to be compiled.) Hmmm.

Another approach to the limitation of copper wiring

is to dispense with it whenever you can for wireless solutions. To date, the Spy hasn't been big on these because of the speed sacrifice. Even 802.11g is scarcely up to video streaming and heavy-duty file serving. The industry hasn't been idle of course. It's been lurching toward the 802.11n standard for years now, but standards processes have bottlenecks of their own. Hmmm. Should there be a law here?

As in previous standard iterations, some manufacturers decided to jump the gun and come to market early, with upgradeable product implementing the most current version of what will become a reality in standards time. For five times the speed and double the coverage range, why not? Now Apple has joined the crowd, and the latest iteration of the Airport Extreme base station will embody the "n" protocol. Sounds like a plan to us, but the Spy will wait a time. He recently wired his house with CAT6 to every room, and doesn't need the new wireless. Joel asked him "why?" and he replied, "because I could".

Oh, and one last thing.

This month's Northern Spy column title references an important older book. The body of text contains other references to the same book, including specific articles in the book. If you can name the book and one of the articles referenced, you could win a prize (no illusion for your allusion illumine) from the Spy's hosting company subsidiary. Don't all eMail nspy-AT-thenorthernspy.comat once.

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Trinity Western University. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Bowker's Booksurge.


The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com

The Spy's Laws collected: http://www.thenorthernspy.com/spyslaws.htm

The Spy's Shareware download site: http://downloads.thenorthernspy.com/

WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net

WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net

nameman : http://nameman.net

opundo : http://opundo.com

Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org

Arjay Books: http://www.ArjayBooks.com

Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com

Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

p1: www.awiedemann.de/compiler/index.html

BBEdit: http://www.bbedit.com/

Nolobe: http://www.nolobe.com/

This Arjay Enterprises page is Copyright 1983-2007.
The Northern Spy is registered at WebNameSource.com and is hosted by WebnameHost.net.
Last Updated: 2007 01 19