Even a broken watch is right twice a day

Gaming guru Richard Garriott (a.k.a. Lord British) gave an interview about his new on-line game recently, and one quote leapt at me:

Even though we chow on lots of bandwidth…the cost of bandwidth has come down so low. Now the biggest expense to us is electricity. On one server set we pay more money on electricity than on bandwidth. Bandwidth is really no longer the dominant factor to push value to our customers.

Back while Wired was jumping the shark (a process unquestionably completed by issue 5.03 and started much earlier), it published an article by George Gilder predicting essentially this, that an era would come where people would “waste bandwidth and save watts.”

My instinct usually led me to distrust Gilder, a feeling that was confirmed by his later founding of the Discovery Institute; however, in spite of using the word “paradigm” far to often (i.e. more than zero times), at the time I thought this Wired article prediction was correct. I remember getting into an argument about it not long after the article was published with a gamer buddy of mine. I felt that companies who built technology assuming they had infinite bandwidth would eventually crush those who invested energies into technology that assumed bandwidth was scarce. My buddy disagreed. The argument petered out when we realized that we were thinking about very different time scales. My buddy was thinking about the next five years. I was thinking about the next 50. Looks like I only needed to wait 10.

Actually, I was probably wrong back then, because I ignored the other half of Gilder’s point: that electricity would become scarce. While most of the first world is worried about terrorism, immigration, global environmental problems and which celebrities are breeding, power generation is more likely than all of them combined to bring down the first world. Imagine that you knew that world electricity consumption (around 12.8 TW now) was going to more than double by 2050 (to 28-35 TW) and were given the task to figure out where this power would come from. To get this power, would you:

  1. Burn every plant, even food, growing over the entire agricultural landmass of the planet.
  2. Build one new nuclear fission (or, conceivably, fusion) reactor every three days, starting now, until 2050.
  3. Saturate every spot of land traversed by winds strong enough to produce electricity with windmills.
  4. Dam every remaining undammed river on earth.
  5. Continue to suck every possible source of petroleum for all it’s worth, and find as much more as you can.
  6. Improve efficiency in existing power generation
  7. Somehow harness the power of the sun

It turns out that even if you did all of the first four, none of which are actually practical, you’d only barely be able to meet your target. Option 5 is the likely reality and, while opinions vary on exactly how much petroleum-based fuel remains, all agree that whatever the quantity is, it is both finite and non-renewable. It’s also fairly certain that the geopolitics surrounding oil that have been such a source of joy over the last few decades will only get more ugly. Eventually, this will probably get bad enough that option six will become economical. Chances are, this will improve things; however, it is most likely that any efficiencies will be in the area of petroleum-based power and, since this is non-renewable, such a solution ultimately becomes useless.

One thing we have a lot of, however, is sunlight and water. We can build fuel cells that combine hydrogen with air to produce water and energy. If sunlight could be harnessed to convert water to hydrogen, very large quantities of power could be generated in a renewable way. Barring something like antimatter reactors, only the sun contains the energy potential we’re likely to need. Unfortunately, we don’t actually know enough fundamental chemistry to solve this problem yet. One of my rules is to suggest solutions, and to this problem, I have none. I know of those who are working on one, though.

The Nocera Lab at MIT (the source I’ve used for the numbers and information above) is working on this exact problem. I’d trust their ability to hit on a solution over mine. An interesting prediction of the leader of this lab (mentioned in a lecture at a private company) is that every key advance in chemistry in the next few decades is likely to have something to do with power.

Another potential solution comes from the much less prestigious (bordering on flaky) Living Universe Foundation. While this group has grand plans for space colonization, the early stage of their plan is more grounded, involving building platform “cities” on the oceans. Whether of not these will be true cities, these platforms would be built around a large Stirling engine that would use the temperature differential between the surface and several dozen feet under water to generate electricity, which would then be used to extract hydrogen from water. Essentially, the power input into these systems is also the sun, as it is what heats the surface water.

Whatever occurs, if Gilder’s contention that “every economic era is based on a key abundance and a key scarcity” is true, the scarcity over my lifetime is likely to be electricity until someone ushers in the hydrogen age. Whether the “key abundance” will turn out to be bandwidth or not remains to be seen, but it’s as good a guess as any.

How you will be wasting your time in the near future

Will Wright has changed the face of computer gaming at least twice. He’s about to do it again in what may turn out to be the coolest video game ever. I’m not even going to try to explain it, but let Mr. Wright show you himself in this video. The video is quite long. After about the first two minutes, you are thinking to yourself “well, that looks like it might be kinda fun”. After about seven minutes, you really want to play it. But the video continues for another twenty minutes and just keeps getting better.

Seriously, if you like computer simulation games at all, spend the time to watch the whole thing. Keep an eye out for the way he uses the word “landmark”, which gives some interesting insight into the way his mind works.

Once you’ve seen the video, you might also read this article about it. I think it’s pretty clear that “Spore” will be a household word before the decade is out.

Holding out for a hero

After reading more of John Robb’s ideas comparing terrorist operations to the open source programming ethic, I’m beginning to think that the relation is a bit more than metaphorical. It’s clear that part of this “open source warfare” are groups of Muslim vandals who have taken to defacing sites. In spite of warnings that this might lead to denial of service attacks and more serious hacking threats, none have been corroborated yet (well, at least not by anyone credible). It’s all to easy to believe they are coming though. Recently Robb suggested that infrastructure-based attacks by small “open source” guerillas may be coming soon and “much of the instruction and research passed to these groups will be done through the Internet.” I’d take this one step further and say that some of the attacks may come through the internet as well. Meanwhile, it’s becoming more evident that threats from organizations that are neither companies nor nations are growing (or have grown) beyond the ability of national armies to defeat.

All of this, though, makes me wonder: where are the white hats? Surely the Muslim world doesn’t have a monopoly on groups of hackers willing to engage in a guerilla war for a cause they believe in, without any central organizing authority. And I’m not just talking about turning Hamas into smut peddlers. Combating these Islamist hackers requires a group willing to subject them to something they should fear: scrutiny. I’m thinking of, at least, some kind of web sites that would post things like “site X was hacked by these people — here’s what we know”. Naturally, such sites would get attacked, but that would actually be useful. There would also need to be some sort of trust system to control who could post, but the net is pretty good at figuring out that sort of stuff. More crucial would be participation of the sites being attacked. Some would be willing to share logs, some would be trickier. Most important would be the reaction of the military and intelligence agencies. I’d like to think they’d welcome the help, but chances are they’d try to shut it down. An open source counterinsurgency does run the risk of accidentally ruining “official” covert action of which it has no awareness, but I suspect that’d be a risk worth taking.

Rendering the Mouse

There is lots of talk about the purchase of Pixar by Disney. I won’t make much comment on it because, like so much else, it’s been done. In particular, this guy nails it.

I will say that the deal will go a long way toward solving Apple’s video content problem, though it won’t make non-Disney media companies any less afraid.

The main point of this post, however, is to talk about the genius of Pixar films. I’m not talking about their features, though those are certainly entertaining. Pixar’s brilliance, however, really shines in their short films. Their early stuff in particular, like Luxo, Red’s Dream and Tin Toy both pushed the envelope of the technology of the time and told great stories. I bought the Monsters, Inc. DVD just to get a copy of For the Birds. I’d love to have a DVD of just their shorts, but for now it looks like I have to settle for crappy, quarter-of-already-awful-standard-TV-resolution iTunes downloads.

WoW Hollywood

Like any good on-line game, World of Warcraft has spawned numerous communities, each with their own culture. I think two of these cultures could come together fairly soon and create something impressive and fun.

A robust, talented and creative collection of people use WoW to create machinima, animated movies that use 3D game engines to capture “live” motion of the models (as opposed to frame-by-frame hand rendered stop motion animation). Like most genres, machinima obeys Sturgeon’s Law (90% of anything is crap), but when it’s good, it’s extremely impressive what can be done with just images from a game. The Warcraft machinima community, in particular, seems to cut across a wide swath of styles, from drama to advertisements, comedy, even…uh…romance (may not be safe for work). Even using just the limited emotional and motion range of the avatars and camera in WoW, much of this work is impressive.

A completely unrelated group has been irritating Blizzard, the makers of WoW, by running private servers. These servers emulate the real game servers run by Blizzard, allowing clients to log in for free. Generally, being reverse engineered, these private servers are buggy, slow, vastly underpopulated and potentially ripe to be shut down an any moment by Blizzard legal. Still, there are a bunch of them. One of their attractions is that, given control over the server, it can be tweaked to, say, increase the rate of experience awards or otherwise customize the game.

And this is where I think the two communities could meet. It seems like it would be desirable for the machinima community to have a hacked server with additional camera motion control, undisturbed access to sets (that is, the ability to reach places in the game without being attacked by mobs), complete wardrobe control and so on. Sort of a Hollywood back lot for producing machinima.

I’m probably the worst person to comment on this, as I neither produce machinima nor use private servers. For all I know, something like this already exists. Still, I’m not going to do anything with the idea, and it seems a shame to let go to waste.

Also, since I’m on the subject of WoW, just a random lament: if only the game supported selling short! With the war effort currently ongoing, you could probably make a killing on commodities that were close to being fully collected.

Greed trumps thinking differently

Apart from another dumb name from Apple (“MacBook Pro”), the underwhelming announcements in the most recent MacWorld keynote hid a really cool idea that could have changed how people used computers, had it not been saddled with an extremely irritating and unnecessary limitation. The new edition of iPhoto has a feature called (somewhat unimaginatively) “photocasting”. It allows you to upload a photo album to a server, and provides an RSS feed to which others can subscribe. If they also have iPhoto, it wraps around the RSS feed and opens the album like any other iPhoto album. Instant, easy image sharing for the masses. They don’t need to know how it works, it just does.

This is a cool idea largely because it helps eradicate one of the more unpleasant abuses of technology: e-mail attachments. There are a number of free and easy ways to move files from one person to another. Attaching them to an e-mail is one of the worst of them. It works, but it really isn’t what e-mail systems were built for. This method survives, even prospers, because most people don’t know any better. The photocasting system avoids the main drawbacks of e-mail file transfer: maybe you really don’t want that 50 megabytes of pictures from grandma to fill up your inbox and make the rest of your mail bounce. Maybe you don’t want to spend the download time it will take to grab all this data you don’t want, just to read your e-mail. Maybe there shouldn’t be separate copies of this data stored individually in the dozens mail queues that grandma cc’d on the message. By easily creating a single copy of the data in a semi-public spot and mailing a reference to this data, this data is no longer shoved down at you, putting you in control of if you want it or not. By making it seamless, Apple brings this solution to the masses.

Problem: Apple’s implementation of this idea requires the possession and use of their subscription .Mac service, which means that the masses will never use this idea enough to allow it to supplant e-mail attachments as the photo-sharing mechanism of choice. Had the whole system been made an open standard that could be published to any web server, the majority of the planet would be sharing photos this way within a year. By tying it to a service that most do not use and only Apple provides, this great idea will languish.

Well, perhaps not. The one saving grace is that Apple chose to use an RSS feed. Since RSS is an open standard, it’s likely that enterprising souls will release “iPhoto album readers” on various platforms, so at least the “viewing” half of the system might catch on. No doubt people will build software to upload a bunch of pictures to your own server and publish a compatible RSS feed for them. This will be useful, but you won’t be able to do it from iPhoto, which will suck.

The .Mac service, while somewhat interesting, is completely useless to me because I own my own web domain (for not much more than a .Mac subscription). The service would only be compelling to me if one or more of the following happened:

  • Apple combines the two products they obviously consider to be yearly costs (iLife and .Mac) into a bundle that costs much less than the two combined. That is, offer an iLife + .Mac yearly subscription for $100 or so. This, I suppose, would be the equivalent of giving away iLife with a .Mac subscription.
  • Someone built an open source clone of the .Mac system that I could run on my own server. It may be that such a project already exists, but Google’s insistence on ignoring the dot in “.Mac” make searches for it problematic. (If anyone is interested in starting such a project, I think a great name would be “!Mac”, pronounced “not Mac”.)
  • .Mac is changed to provide domain hosting services, with corresponding flexibility for installing blog software, etc. I’m not holding my breath for this.

I’m sure Apple is thinking that keeping the system closed like this will bring them more revenue. I’m also sure that making these neat ideas open would bring them even more.

Update: There is now a surprising amount of foaming at the mouth about how well or badly Apple uses RSS. Sam Ruby wades through it.