Category Archives: Tech

We are our data storage

DNA: The Ultimate Hard Drive

sn-storage.jpg

Genetic hard drive. Scientists have found a way to store an entire textbook in the code of DNA.
Credit: Sergey Volkov/iStockphoto

 

When it comes to storing information, hard drives don’t hold a candle to DNA. Our genetic code packs billions of gigabytes into a single gram. A mere milligram of the molecule could encode the complete text of every book in the Library of Congress and have plenty of room to spare. All of this has been mostly theoretical—until now. In a new study, researchers stored an entire genetics textbook in less than a picogram of DNA—one trillionth of a gram—an advance that could revolutionize our ability to save data.

A few teams have tried to write data into the genomes of living cells. But the approach has a couple of disadvantages. First, cells die—not a good way to lose your term paper. They also replicate, introducing new mutations over time that can change the data.

To get around these problems, a team led by George Church, a synthetic biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, created a DNA information-archiving system that uses no cells at all. Instead, an inkjet printer embeds short fragments of chemically synthesized DNA onto the surface of a tiny glass chip. To encode a digital file, researchers divide it into tiny blocks of data and convert these data not into the 1s and 0s of typical digital storage media, but rather into DNA’s four-letter alphabet of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts. Each DNA fragment also contains a digital “barcode” that records its location in the original file. Reading the data requires a DNA sequencer and a computer to reassemble all of the fragments in order and convert them back into digital format. The computer also corrects for errors; each block of data is replicated thousands of times so that any chance glitch can be identified and fixed by comparing it to the other copies.

To demonstrate its system in action, the team used the DNA chips to encode a genetics book co-authored by Church. It worked. After converting the book into DNA and translating it back into digital form, the team’s system had a raw error rate of only two errors per million bits, amounting to a few single-letter typos. That is on par with DVDs and far better than magnetic hard drives. And because of their tiny size, DNA chips are now the storage medium with the highest known information density, the researchers report online today in Science.

Don’t replace your flash drive with genetic material just yet, however. The cost of the DNA sequencer and other instruments “currently makes this impractical for general use,” says Daniel Gibson, a synthetic biologist at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, “but the field is moving fast and the technology will soon be cheaper, faster, and smaller.” Gibson led the team that created the first completely synthetic genome, which included a “watermark” of extra data encoded into the DNA. The researchers used a three-letter coding system that is less efficient than the Church team’s but has built-in safeguards to prevent living cells from translating the DNA into proteins. “If DNA is going to be used for this purpose, and outside a laboratory setting, then you would want to use DNA sequence that is least likely to be expressed in the environment,” he says. Church disagrees. Unless someone deliberately “subverts” his DNA data-archiving system, he sees little danger.

http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2012/08/written-in-dna-code.html

Chip in a pill

Proteus Biomedical has developed chip-in-a-pill technology that transmits patient data directly to a smartphone.

Some people will say that this is awesome, amazing, magnificent. Of course, as a technological breakthrough this is something very clever. This invention gives doctors the closest and most direct way to go inside you and find out what’s the matter. A nice detail here is that “It’s biodegradable, made from things in your diet, that is activated by acids in your stomach to send out a very super-low-power, digital signal that’s picked up by a patch that’s worn on your arm, that might look like a nicotine patch. … And from that device, it sends a signal to an app for your iPhone. From there, you’ve got the Internet. You can send the information to your doctor, to caregivers at home.” (Reference: NPR.org.)

But there is a backdraw. Not perhaps in this application as it is now, but think what could happen: you get this nice little pill with a chip, to find out what is ailing you. The doctor measures and extracts your signal. And then, instead of dissolving, the chip stays inside you, happily sending out signals. Such a nice way for the world to know where you are when you don’t have your mobile phone with you (or switched it off). And you would not know it.

And let’s take the paranoia a bit further. The worst scenario that can come from this would be control. Suppose there is this little chip inside you, or perhaps a few of them after subsequent pills, that can be used to control you. Subdue you when you are making trouble (whatever is seen as trouble), or turn you into someone you are not (going wild here, but nothing is outside the realm of possibilities with this). Someone flicks a switch and you turn into a killer? Not a nice thought.

This all may sound far-fetched but… remember the panic and the state of mind after the horror of 9 / 11 in New York happened? I have seen footage where people claim they would gladly get a chip in their body so they could be identified/located in a case of emergency. With pills like this, that future might not be far away.

How Steampunk Can (Help) Save the World

From Tor.com’s STEAMPUNK WEEK 2012:

Boldly Into Our Patina’d Future: How Steampunk Can (Help) Save the World

Boldly Into Our Patina’d Future: How Steampunk Can (Help) Save the WorldPhoto by ’Riding Pretty

Steampunk is, in part at least, a re-envisioning of humanity’s interaction with the things that we make and how we make them. It’s a non-luddite critique of technology that says “Hey, you’re doing it wrong” without trying to eschew technology outright. And that critique is sorely, sorely needed, now more than ever.

Continue reading How Steampunk Can (Help) Save the World

Avatar and its computer-array

I am an avid Avatar fan. Not the Last Airbender, but the epic film by James Cameron. My involvement on the Learn Na’vi forum, learning and teaching the language, as well as owning several copies of the film on DVD and Bluray should attest to that.

I also love technology that is put to use in a good way.

The combination of that goes into Avatar’s background. The link takes you to an article about the computing power used to render the film. It’s impressive.

Thirty four racks comprise the computing core, made of 32 machines each with 40,000 processors and 104 terabytes of memory. Weta systems administrator Paul Gunn said that heat exchange for their servers had to be enclosed. The “industry standard of raised floors and forced-air cooling could not keep up with the constant heat coming off the machines,” said Gunn. “We need to stack the gear closely to get the bandwidth we need and, because the data flows are so great, the storage has to be local.” The solutions was the use of water-cooled racks from Rittal.

Gunn also noted that tens of thousands of dollars were saved by fine tuning the temperature by a degree.  Weta won an energy excellence award recently for building a smaller footprint that came with a 40 percent lower cooling cost for a data center of its type.

For the last month or more of production those 40,000 processors were handling 7 or 8 gigabytes of data per second, running 24 hours a day. A final copy of Avatar equated to 17.28 gigabytes per minute of storage. For a 166 minute movie the rendering coordination was intense.

Fuel price went up again

It is not because of wars in oil-sensitive areas.

It is not because of the American elections for the next president.

It’s because the car makers have the bloody nerve to make fuel efficient cars so that the big oil company don’t get the money in that they think they deserve. They will make sure they get money for their value, no matter what we do.

It’s about time there is no more oil left for them to blackmail us with.

Why do people pirate?

Article found on Gizmodo.

This Is Why People Pirate

Do you know why people hate movie studios? Why, increasingly, they’re driven to download content illegally, even though they’re perfectly willing to pay for it? Because of crap like this:

LOS ANGELES, CA. (August 14, 2012) -– The world of Pandora has never looked better as over 33 million AVATAR Facebook fans were the first to learn of the upcoming release of the AVATAR Blu-ray 3D Collector’s Edition, debuting globally beginning October 15, releasing in North America October 16, from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. A home entertainment experience like no other, for the first time ever, fans will be able to welcome James Cameron’s global box office sensation into their homes in stunning 3D high-definition.

December 10, 2009. Avatar is released in theaters and goes on to become the highest grossing movie ever. Adjusted for inflation, it’s number two all time. On April 22, 2010, it is released on DVD. It’s now August 14, 2012. In what world does it make sense for the movie that basically defibrillated the entire notion of 3D movies to take three damn years to make a wide release on 3D Blu-ray? Ours, apparently.

Here’s how we got here: Panasonic got in bed with Avatar early on, promoting the film with103 trucks with giant 3D TVs on them. That was kind of cool, actually. But then, it turned out you could only buy the 3D Blu-ray with a Panasonic 3D TV. Which turned out to cost, all things considered, about 300 damn dollars for a $30 Blu-ray, no matter how you spun it. Totally dumb, totally anti-consumer.

So what did we do? What were we basically invited to do? We pirated.

As of October of last year, Avatar was the most pirated movie ever. 21 million downloads and counting. Sure, a lot of those were shaky cams, but how many were 1080p downloads and oh-hell-good-enough DVD rips were included in that? Probably a lot.

And the most infuriating part? It’s not like Panasonic got anything out of it anyway. In justJanuary to March of this year, it lost more than $5 billion—much of that in TVs. Is any significant portion of that due directly to its screwing with people who just wanted to buy and watch Avatar on their damn-expensive 3D TV? No, of course not. But it’s also clear that no one is ever going to buy a Panasonic 3D TV just because it has an exclusive on Avatar.

This is less an indictment of Panasonic or FOX’s business acumen—which, you know, speaks for itself—than an illustration of exactly how little consideration is given to us, the paying customers.

All of this matters. Especially right now. Demonoid just went down for the count. The RIAA and MPAA want the US to stomp on the Pirate Bay the same way. And we’re just a few months removed from the Supreme Court declining to hear an appeal for a $675,000 fine levied against Joel Tenenbaum for, as a teen, downloading a few dozen songs. The subtext is clear. It’s not even subtext—it’s super-text. We are the assholes. It’s our fault that movies are bad and the music industry can’t figure out how to monetize itself. And the copyright gestapo is coming for us. That’s the message, the threat, looming over every idiotic decision that pushes us closer to BitTorrent.

It’s not a new song. Big content has been struggling for years to figure out how to stop shooting itself in the feet and legs and genitals and torso on digital content. It’s Apple taking years to drop its draconian DRM from iTunes sales. Or it’s Amazon—the biggest bookseller in the world—locking down its own ebooks, even though they often cost exponentially more than simply buying a paperback. Or even Adele, lovely Adele, not having 21 on Spotify because her people didn’t want free customers to be able to listen to her. And it’s certainly HBO tying its brilliant HBO Go streaming to an archaic cable subscription. Buying things, or getting them legally, is still a giant pain in the ass. Insanely, counterintuitively, infuriatingly, it’s even worse for especially popular content, like Avatar or 21.

So what’s the other side of this? People want to pay for things. Spotify’s paying subscription base has grown 50 percent over the past six months. Apple is making billions from content sales. Even Netflix is on the comeback trail, after pantsing itself with last year’s Qwikster debacle. Make it easy, make it good, and people will pay.

Until then? Enjoy your three-year-old Blu-ray. Or just pirate it.

One of the comments:

What bothers me is paying extra for things that I want because they’re inextricably bundled with crap that I don’t want. For instance, the Avengers comes out on video next month. I have a Blu-Ray player and an iPad, and ideally, I’d like to just buy a Blu-Ray that comes bundled with a digital copy, but frankly, just the Blu-Ray disc would be fine.

But I can’t buy that. I have to buy the Blu-Ray bundled with the DVD I don’t need (with no digital copy). If I actually want to get that digital copy, I have to buy the four-disc combo that comes with the Blu-Ray disc, a Blu-Ray 3D disc, a DVD, a digital copy and the soundtrack to the damned movie. What the actual f***?

Moreover, if I chose to buy the Blu-Ray and the digital copy separately, it would cost me about $50 total just to be able to watch the same movie across multiple platforms.

Crap like that is why people pirate.

Transportation. Time for change.

Something has to happen. The picture here is one most people know and recognise. Have you ever sat in such a mess? If yes, I pity you. If not, then how on earth did you manage that?

We are all the slaves of fossil fuel. Diesel, petrol, whatever kind your vehicle likes, it is there for you, and the prices go up and up and up (and down a cent) and up some more. The only ones who thrive on that are the big oil companies. And they know that the reserves of their liquid gold are diminishing, so they are pushing up the prices some more to make as much in their lifetime as they can. All under the guise of wars in oil-producing areas, cost of labour and more of that.

We need to look at the other options much more. Individual transport is the holy cow of the western world. Go electric. Oil companies try to stop electric, but they are failing (finally). They also blocked hydrogen cars for very long, hopefully that is going to fall and fail too. A better form of public transport, smaller units transporting people more flexibly to more places. Electric trains, maglev trains. Oh, of course, that costs bundles of money, but it is an investment in the future, one that will keep its value. More roads, more asphalt, preparing for more fossil-fuel devouring machines is an investment for the short term. A waste of money. We have to look forward.

Internet Explorer

It is a strange piece of software. I don’t like it but I need it for some stuff at work. After it was automatically upgraded to 9.0 I spent ages trying to find how it will automatically load Citrix “.ica” files. Never found it.

Since a few days it automatically loads .ica files without me telling it to do so? This takes user-friendly to new heights. Uhm – make that lows?