An idiosyncratic look at, and comment on, the week's net and technology news
by Alan Lenton
A new week and a new issue of Winding Down containing material on social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Digg and Flickr), together with pieces on The Royal Bank of Scotland, transistors using protons, Sir Bernard Lovell, LED T-Shirts, hacking surge protectors, the world’s smallest gun, and the URLs to a host of other stories.
Early warning - the weekend after next is the last holiday before Christmas in the UK. We here at Winding Down Towers will, instead of scribing away, be down at The Cabin on Chiswick High Street enjoying a leisurely and well-earned brunch and watching the world go by (sadly there’s no Dock of the Bay in Chiswick). Thus, there will be no Winding Down on the 26th August!
In the meantime...
The financial problems of social networks such as Facebook (share price down massively since their IPO) and Twitter are well known. Actually, it’s not just the current high profile social networks that have, or have had, problems. If you look back, virtually all social network have come under increasing financial pressure (usually fatal) as they’ve grown. Just look at Digg as an example. It used to be valued at tens of millions, but was recently sold for US$500,000. Quite a come down for something which was once one of the hottest properties on the net.
The problem is it’s extremely difficult to monetize social networking sites. The bigger they are the more difficult. Facebook’s turnover may look large, but compared to its membership, it’s a drop in the ocean. The problem is that as soon as advertisers are used to provide income for a site, people get upset and start drifting away disillusioned. The more successful a site is, the more advertisers expect to get out of it and the less its users are prepared to accept.
Perhaps there is a limit to the size at which social networks can grow without triggering this positive feedback loop? Certainly that is the view of Derek Powazek, a community activist from San Francisco, who argues fairly persuasively that the only viable sites are small sites. Some of his material is a little on the exaggerated side - Digg was never worth billions, for instance - and the small is beautiful mantra has never been totally convincing to me, but I think the piece is well worth a read. Especially if you are thinking of investing in a social network!
And talking of Facebook, I note that it has recently accepted an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which requires that all future changes to its privacy settings be made on the basis of opting-in to the changes. That is, Facebook will not just change your privacy settings to a new, and usually unpleasant, set of defaults without you agreeing to it first. I feel pretty certain that Facebook will find ways around this - ‘Oops, it was a programming error, honest, Your Honor’. After all they aren’t making these changes simply because they are a nasty bunch with no regard for other people’s personal privacy (although this may well be the case), they are doing it because it is absolutely necessary in order to get in the level of advertising they need to pay the bills and have some left over for their increasingly disgruntled shareholders.
I guess we might as well stick with Facebook for a little longer... Forbes magazine recently ran a story about people who are not on Facebook being classed as suspicious characters by employers, the government, acquaintances and the like. Some people are outraged at the idea that employers flag you as dubious if you don’t have a Facebook account. As a person who doesn’t have a Facebook account I have no problems whatsoever with this practice. It is an excellent method of finding out immediately which companies I wouldn’t work for no matter how much they paid me!
One last snippet on social networks, this time Twitter. Last winter a guy was waiting in Doncaster, UK, airport to fly to meet his girlfriend. Unfortunately, the airport was closed due to snow. In frustration he send his girlfriend a bunch of tweets, including one saying, “Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your **** together otherwise I am blowing the airport sky high!!”
He was arrested and convicted on the grounds that his message was considered ‘menacing per se’. Now, though, the High Court, in a major victory for common sense, has quashed the conviction. The judges said, “There was no evidence before the Crown Court to suggest that any of the followers of the appellant’s ‘tweet’, or indeed anyone else who may have seen the ‘tweet’ posted on the appellant’s time line, found it to be of a menacing character or, at a time when the threat of terrorism is real, even minimally alarming,”
Definitely the way to go!
OK, OK, it wasn’t the last piece about social networks, but here is a nice bit about Flickr. Entomologist Shaun Winterton was flicking through pictures on Flickr (as one does) when he came across an insect that he hadn’t seen before. He sent the picture to a few colleagues. They had hadn’t seen that insect before, either, so he contacted the photographer, Guek Hock Ping, who said the photo was taken in the Malaysian jungle.
The problem was that there was no specimen to study, and there the matter rested until a year later when Guek returned to the spot and was able to capture a specimen for Shaun. It was indeed a new species, which has been named Semachrysa jade after Shaun’s daughter!
And now for something completely different... A couple of issues back I mentioned the disaster we had over here when the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) suffered a major computer outage which took several weeks to sort out. Well the figures for that little screw up are now in - it cost a cool 125 million UK pounds (just under US$200 million). Most of that went not on fixing the problem, but in compensation to affected customers. A tidy sum when you think about it.
Not that it ends there - there have been further problems, inevitable really as emergency hacks put in to fix things fall apart and exhausted techies make further mistakes out of sheer tiredness. The truth is that blunders like this will increase while banks continue to outsource their operations to offshore companies that offer the lowest price. Furthermore this bad habit won’t be resolved until the banks stop thinking of themselves as a bank with an IT department, and start to realize that they are, in fact, IT companies with a banking license!
I was catching up on my reading of old copies of ‘New Scientist’ magazine the other day when I came across a piece of research work that struck me as potentially hugely important.
First a little background. Conventional electronics relies on pushing electrons around. Transistors, for instance, are devices for switching streams of electrons on and off. Your body also uses electronics to control and move material around. However, it uses positive ions and protons, to do the work. (Note: positive ions, not positrons - the latter would result in you vanishing in a puff of gamma rays!)
So, what we have is a fundamental mismatch between our bodies’ electrical structure, and that of conventional electronics. This is why it is so difficult to produce non-clunky interfaces between our bodies’ systems and those electronic devices that need to be directly wired in. There have been a number of attempts to produce positive ion driven electronics, but they have floundered on the problem of suitable materials able to mimic the use of semi-conductors in conventional electronics.
Finally, a substance has been found that has allowed the construction of a proton based transistor. It’s a sugar molecule called maleic chitosan, and its ‘semi conductor’ like properties were discovered by Marco Rolandi and his team at the University of Washington two years ago. Now they have a functioning transistor - just. Conventional modern transistors change the flow of electrons by a factor of 10,000, the proton transistor can only manage a factor of ten.
But we have to understand that this is only the first tentative step. This is a material which is biologically compatible with cellular material, and it will act as a switch. The team is in a position similar to that of the conventional transistor in 1947, the original of which was roughly a centimeter high! For comparison these days Intel routinely gets about four billion transistor onto a single microchip.
It’s early days, but I’m of the opinion that this achievement will have massive implications for the future.
[Source: Paper edition, New Scientist 16 June 2012 Web preview at http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21428692.200-positive-switch-for-body-electronics.html]
R.I.P. Sir Bernard Lovell who established the iconic Jodrell Bank radio telescope in 1957. It is still, 50 years later, the third biggest steerable radio telescope in the world. (Pub trivia factoid: did you know that the trunnions used came from gun turrets on battleships broken up after World War II?)
Now here’s a nifty T-Shirt for you - it has a set of LED audio equalizer bars on the front! The bars are activated by either the ambient sounds, or by music. The only downside is that you have to remove the LED bars and battery pack in order to wash it. Hmmm... I can think of certain geeks who wouldn’t have this problem.
This little offering from DARPA isn’t just nifty, it’s also downright creepy. It’s a surge protector with built-in stealth hacking machinery. On the outside it looks just like an ordinary plug block with surge protection. Inside is a full-blown set of hacking tools and the equipment to run them. It’s not cheap to buy at US$1,295, and it’s called Power Pwn. I’ll never look at a surge protector the same way again!
How would you like to own the world’s smallest gun? The SwissMiniGun C1ST is a double-action .09 caliber six-shooter that’s just over two inches (5.5 cm) long weighing 0.7 oz. It does, however, cost an eye watering US$6,705. And that’s for the basic model - the one with the diamonds and gold costs a lot more.
I wonder if it would be considered to be a concealed gun if you wore it openly as jewelry?
Scanner: Other stories
Piracy witch hunt downs legit e-book lending Web site
Steam for Linux Ubuntu officially announced by Valve
Valve to open Steam to non-game software
Google Chrome now used by one in three web surfers
Blizzard Battle.net hack attack hits millions
How Apple and Amazon security flaws led to my epic hacking
Apple, Amazon, close password door after horse bolts
Thanks to readers Andrew, Barb and Fi for drawing my attention to material used in this issue.
Please send suggestions for stories to firstname.lastname@example.org and include the words Winding Down in the subject line, unless you want your deathless prose gobbled up by my voracious Spamato spam filter...
12 August 2012
Alan Lenton is an on-line games designer, programmer and sociologist, the order of which depends on what he is currently working on! His web site is at http://www.ibgames.net/alan.
Past issues of Winding Down can be found at http://www.ibgames.net/alan/winding/index.html.
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