Month: January 2011

The Group

As a postal worker, Mark had plenty of time to wonder in his head about things. Being in the post was not the most boring job ever, but wasn’t also complex that would put his brain cells to work that much. A bit of letter sorting and route planning was more than he needed to perform his job well and, even though he had a few neurons to spare, that actually didn’t help with his boss’ appraisal.

Not that Mark’s boss didn’t welcome a bit of thinking, it’s just that sometimes, too much thinking can do more harm than good. Nevertheless, Mark had that job for a few years now, and no plans to actually make a change. He had no family to care for, nor any massive debt to pay out and wasn’t particularly good looking to actually have a girlfriend.

But all that averageness wouldn’t help Mark to stop thinking about those things. Things that would make him loose his job. Things that always made him awkward when talking to women. Things that nobody else could understand, and nobody cared for that matter. Probably the very reason why he was thinking about it again this morning…

Spam

Between delivering some spam to a semi-detached family house and dropping a small box to a bungalow with lots of rubbish on the pavement, he thought how hard it is to do what people expect you to. Why do we have to deliver spam to half the country? Why can’t he just skip the spam, since nobody wants it anyway, and just deliver the good stuff? Would they really know if he’d delivered the spam in the first place?

For a few minutes that day, people walking down the pavement were somewhat annoyed with the presence of a motionless postman holding a few flyers. He was thinking… If they were actually paying attention, people on that street, that day, would see a perfectly regular postman sorting through his delivery quota in his bag with anger, until all the flyers were in his hand. He opened the green bin of that bungalow, and dropped them all in there.

To be honest, one mother coming down the high street, immediately after dropping her daughter at school (and the usual chat with other parents), actually saw all that happening. But her head was so full of problems, her daughter’s performance in school wasn’t that good and her husband, if you can call that husband, wasn’t being particularly nice that day. She dismissed the whole scene as another common madness of the world.

Mark was anxious, waiting for someone to say something, to reprehend him or to cheers for his bravery, but nothing really happened. It was exactly the same village as he was just a few minutes ago. A very radical move from his part had no damage whatsoever on the course of man kind. It was in that moment that he decided to do that every day.

For 3 years he put all the flyers in random bins (there weren’t that many, but he managed to hid some other on random places, too). To no surprise, absolutely nothing happened to any one. Local business were still working, Tesco was still full of people buying the same chicken wings on sale and the brand new chip shop had a very good clientèle, despite all their spam going to the bin every day.

With great power…

His success was a bit disappointing. Not only he managed to keep doing for so long, but nobody ever cared. Now, people were actually used to seeing him dropping flyers, no matter how extravagant were his moves around green bins. People would even greet him good morning while he was doing it. But he wasn’t a normal fellow, and his sense of righteousness put him on track to reform society. Small changes for a small man, but nevertheless, changes.

He decided to do every right thing where a wrong thing was expected. He delivered letters to doctors on the same day, even when a second class stamp was used. He’d slack off during most of the afternoon to deliver the big packages during the evening, when everybody was at home. He even delivered letters to people he knew while shopping and one day he replied to a letter himself.

It was a letter to a marriage lawyer firm on the postbox next to school. The letter was a bit crumpled and had a very shaky hand writing. He knew exactly from who that was and why. He replied:

Dear Mrs. Wife,

Your husband is a crook. He gambles the unemployment benefit, he hits your daughter and has an affair with more people that I’d dare to say.

You don’t need a lawyer, you need to slap him in the face and throw him out of your house.

Regards,
The postman

If that ever helped, nobody knows, but how that made him feel better, is inexplicable. The good feeling was taking over his life. He was less tense, had a few dates with the bakery attendant and even sent a letter to his mother. But all that feeling was stopped dead by a call from his boss. Apparently there were some complaints that the postal service was a bit erratic and some letters were not reaching their destinations.

Mark’s boss reassured him that he trusted Mark, but wanted him to know that there would be some investigations and questions to all members of staff. As it turned out, another postman was unhappy about his work and stopped delivering anything and went to the pub for the few last days. After a weekend delivering more letters than usual, everything went back to normal.

Happiness is ethereal

During the next few months, Mark managed to have a sound relationship with Emma (the bakery attendant) and they were actually happy. After the year’s end, Mark got a raise and could now afford a cable TV subscription. He didn’t get the sports pack, since Emma wanted the entertainment one, but all was fine as long as she was there, with him.

However, as it couldn’t be different, Mark started to wonder… He was really happier now than some years ago. The whole city seemed to have accepted his behaviour, no matter how odd. Even Emma ignored the issue after Mark told her during one of their first dates. It really wasn’t that important. How is that possible?

Can he, then, do whatever he wants? To what extent will bending the laws imposed by the people actually go before people start noticing, and doing something about it? How can some people do so little and go to jail, while him, with such a radical take on life, gets completely ignored. What would he have to do to be noticed?

In whatever group you are, Mark realised, as long as you don’t interfere with its natural course, you will be ignored. He learnt from the one of the documentary channels that this is true with every animal. Man is not more than any other animal. Society is not more than any other group. Not only you can do whatever you want, as long as that doesn’t interfere with the group, but everything you do will be completely ignored and, when you die, forgotten.

Obviously, Mark’s new take on life put some dents in his relationship, but he managed to suppress his thoughts while Emma was around. He wouldn’t want to loose her, not after so much trouble to get her. He also agreed not to talk weird while her friends would come over, and that took their relationship to a marriage, and life went on as you know it.

To be honest, I never heard of a postman named Mark, but according to his own theories, he could very much have existed and you’ll never know it…

Dream Machine (take 2)

More than three years ago I wrote about the desktop I really wanted… Now it’s time to review that and make some new speculations…

Back Then

The key issues I raised back then were wireless technology, box size, noise, temperature and the interface.

Wireless power hasn’t progressed as much as I’d like, but all the rest (including wireless graphic cards) are already at full steam. So, apart from power, you don’t need any cables. Also, batteries are getting a bit better (not as fast as I’d like, too), so there is another stop-gap for wireless power.

Box size has reduced dramatically since 2007. All the tablets are almost full computers and with Intel and ARM battling for the mid-size form-factor, we’ll see radical improvements with lower power consumption, smaller sizes, much cooler CPUs and consequently, no noisy fans. Another thing that is bound to reduce temperature and noise is the speed in which solid-state drives are catching up with magnetic ones.

But with regard to the interface, I have to admit I was a bit too retro. Who needs 3D glasses, or pointer hats to drive the cursor on the screen? Why does anyone needs a cursor in the first place? Well, that comes to my second dream machine.

Form Factor

I love keyboards. Writing for (int i=0; i<10; i++) { a[i] = i*M_PI; } is way easier than try to dictate that and hope it gets the brackets, increments and semi-colons correctly. Even if the dictation software was super-smart, I still would feel silly dictating that. Unless I can think and the computer creates the code for me the way I want, there no better interface than the keyboard.

Having a full-size keyboard also allows you to spare some space for the rest of the machine. Transparent CPUs, GPUs and storage are still not available (nor I think will be in the next three years), so putting it into the monitor is a no-go. Flat keyboards (like the Mac ones) are a bit odd and bad for ergonomics, so a simple ergonomic keyboard with the basic hardware inside would do. No mouse, of course, nor any other device except the keyboard.

A flat transparent screen, of some organic LED or electronic paper, with the camera built-in in the centre of the screen, just behind it. So, on VoIP conversations, you look straight into the eyes of the interlocutor. Also, transparent speakers are part of the screen, half-right and half-left are screen + speakers, with transparent wiring as well. All of that, wireless of course. It should be extra-light, so just a single arm to hold the monitor, not attached to the keyboard. You should be able to control the transparency of the screen, to change between VoIP and video modes.

Hardware

CPUs and GPUs are so 10’s. The best way to go forward is to have multi-purpose chips, that can turn themselves (or their parts) on and off at will, that can execute serial or vector code (or both) when required. So, a 16/32 core machine, with heavily pipelined CPU/GPUs, on multiple buses (not necessarily all active at the same time, or for the same communication purpose), could deal with on-demand gaming, video streaming, real-time ray-tracing and multi-threaded compilation without wasting too much power.

On a direct comparison, any of those CPU/GPU dies would have a fraction of the performance of a traditional mono-block chip, but their inherent parallelism and if the OS/drivers are written based on that assumption, a lot of power can be extracted from them. Also, with so many chips, you can selectively use only as much as you need for each task for specific applications. So, a game would use more GPUs than CPUs, probably with one or two CPUs to handle interface and sound. When programming, one or two CPUs can handle the IDE, while the other can compile your code in background. As all of this is on-demand, even during the game you could have a variable number of chips working as GPUs, depending on the depth of the world it’s rendering.

Memory and disk are getting cheaper by the second. I wouldn’t be surprised if in three years 128GB of memory and 10TB of solid-state disk are the new minima. All that, fitting nicely alongside the CPU/GPU bus, avoiding too many hops (NB+PCI+SATA+etc) to get the data in and out would also speed up the storage/retrieval of information. You can probably do a 1s boot up from scratch without the necessity of sleeping any more, just pure hibernate.

Network, again, wireless of course. It’s already a reality for a while, but I don’t expect it to increase considerably in the next 3 years. I assume broadband would increase a few percent, 4G will fail to deliver what it promises when the number of active clients reach a few hundred and the TV spectrum requires more bureaucracy than the world can handle. The cloud will have to wait a bit more to get where hard drives are today.

Interface

A few designs have revolutionized interfaces in the last three years. I consider the pointer-less interface (decent touch screen, camera-ware) and the brain interface as the two most important ones. Touch-screens are interesting, but they are cumbersome as your limbs get in the way of the screen you’re trying to interact with. The Wii-mote was a pioneer, but the MS Kinect broke the barrier of usability. It’s still in its early stages, but as such, it’s a great revolution and because of the unnatural openness of Microsoft about it, I expect it to baffle even the most open minded ones.

On the other hand, brain interfaces only began this year to be usable (and not that much so), the combination of a Kinect, with a camera that reads your eyes and the brain interface to control interactions with the items on the screen should be enough to work efficiently and effectively.

People already follow the mouse with their eyes, it’s easy to teach people to make the pointer follow their eyes. But to remove uncertainties and get rid once and for all of the annoying cursor, you need a 3D camera to take into account your position relative to the screen, the position of other people (that could also interact with the screen on a multi-look interface) and think together to achieve goals. That has applications from games to XP programming.

Voice control could also be used for more natural commands such as “shut-up” or “play some jazz, will ya?”. Nothing too complex, as that’s another field that is crawling for decades and hasn’t have a decent sprint since it started…

Cost

The cost of such a machine wouldn’t be too high, as the components are cheaper than today’s complex motherboard designs, with multiple interconnection standards, different manufacturing processes and tests (very expensive!). The parts themselves would maybe be a bit expensive, but in such volumes (and standardised production) the cost would be greatly reduced.

To the environment, not so much. If mankind continues with the ridiculous necessity of changing their computers every year, a computer like that would fill up the landfills. The integration of the parts is so dense (eg monitor+cameras+speakers in one package) that would be impossible to recycle that cheaper than sending it to the sun to burn (a not so bad alternative).

But in life, we have to choose what’s really important. A nice computer that puts you in a chair for the majority of your life is more important that some pandas and bumble bees, right?