Computing as we know it today is all thanks to one plucky little component: the transistor. This simple piece of technology, which is essentially an on/off switch that can be electronically controlled, is what has enabled the computing revolution of the last half century. However it has many well known limitations most of which stem from the fact that it’s an electrical device and is thus constrained by the speed of electricity. That speed is about 1/100th of that of light so there’s been a lot of research into building a computer that uses light instead of electricity. One of the main challenges that an optical computer has faced is storage as light is a rather tricky thing to pin down and the conversion process into electricity (so it can be stored in traditional memory structures) would negate many of the benefits. This might be set to change as researchers have developed a non-volatile storage platform based on phase-change materials.
The research comes out of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology with collaborations from the universities of Münster, Oxford, and Exeter. The memory cell which they’ve developed can be written at speeds of up to 1GHz, impressive considering most current memory devices are limited to somewhere around a 1/5th of that. The actual memory cell itself is made up of phase-change material (a material that can shift between crystalline and amorphous states) Ge2Sb2Te5, or GST for short. When this material is exposed to a high-intensity light beam its state will shift. This state can then be read later on by using less intense light, allowing a data cell to be changed and erased.
One novel property that the researchers have discovered is that their cell is capable of storing data in more than just a binary format. You see the switch between amorphous and crystalline states isn’t distinct like it is with a transistor which essentially means that a single optical cell could store more data than a single electrical cell. Of course to use such cells with current binary architecture would mean that these cells would need a proper controller to do the translation but that’s not exactly a new idea in computing. For a completely optical computer however that might not be required but such an idea is still a way off from seeing a real world implementation.
The only thing that concerns me about this is the fact that it’s based on phase change materials. There’s been numerous devices based on them, most often in the realms of storage, which have purported to revolutionize the world of computing. However to date not one of them has managed to escape the lab and the technology has always been a couple years away. It’s not that they don’t work, they almost always do, more that they either can’t scale or producing them at volume proves to be prohibitively expensive. This light cell faces the unique challenge that a computing platform built for it currently doesn’t exist yet and I don’t think it can compete with traditional memory devices without it.
It is a great step forward however for the realm of light based computing. With quantum computing likely being decades or centuries away from becoming a reality and traditional computing facing more challenges than it ever has we must begin investigating alternatives. Light based computing is one of the most promising fields in my mind and it’s great to see progress when it’s been so hard to come by in the past.
Since its inception back in 1960 the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has scanned our skies looking for clues of intelligent life elsewhere in our universe. As you might have already guessed the search has yet to bear any fruit since, as far as we’re concerned, no one has been sending signals to us, at least not in the way we’re listening for them. The various programs that make up the greater SETI aren’t particularly well funded however, often only getting a couple hours at a time on any one radio telescope on which to make their observations. That’s all set to change however as Russian business magnate Yuri Milner is going to inject an incredible $100 million into the program over 10 years.
SETI, for the unaware, is a number of different projects and experiments all designed to seek out extraterrestrial life through various means. Traditionally this has been done by scanning the sky for radiowaves, looking for signals that are artificial in nature. Whilst the search has yet to find anything that would point towards a signal of intelligent origin there have been numerous other signals found which, upon further investigation, have turned out to have natural sources. Other SETI programs have utilized optical telescopes to search for communications using laser based communications, something which we have actually begun investigating here on earth recently. There are also numerous other, more niche programs under the SETI umbrella (like those looking for things like Dyson Spheres are other mega engineering projects) but they all share the common goal of answering the same questions: are we alone here?
Since these programs don’t strictly advance science in any particular field they’re not well funded at all, often only getting a handful of hours on telescopes per year. This means that, even though such a search is likely to prove difficult and fruitless for quite a long time, we’re really only looking for a small fraction of the year. The new funds from Yuri Milner will bolster the observation time substantially, allowing for continuous observations for extended periods of time. This will both increase the chances of finding something whilst also providing troves of data that will also be useful for other scientific research.
As Yuri says whilst we’re not expecting this increased funding to instantly result in a detection event the processes we’ll develop along the way, as well as the data we gather, will teach us a lot about the search itself. The more we try the more we’ll understand what methods haven’t proved fruitful, narrowing down the possible search areas for us to investigate. The science fiction fan in me still hopes that we’ll find something, just a skerrick, that shows there’s some other life out there. I know we won’t likely find anything for decades, maybe centuries, but that hope of finding something out there is what’s driving this program forward.
When I worked at Dick Smith Electronics I had one of the greatest staff benefits around: all items in the store could be had for cost price plus 10%. This meant for heavily marked up items (the most common things being add-ons or bulk items) I could get them for a steal, sometimes an order of magnitude lower than what the sticker price was. One particular area where this came in handy was audio/video cables as they were routinely 10x~20x their cost price. Being the budding audiophile that I was these cheap cables were a godsend, allowing me to hook up my various bits of AV equipment for a fraction of the cost. One thing started to become apparent though, the shelf price difference between the premium cables (them fancy gold plated, oxygen free copper deals) was no where near the gap in their cost price, leading me to wonder what the difference really was.
Once I began my studies at university however the differences, or more aptly the lack thereof, became quite apparent. Indeed there was little difference between those cables, especially when used in real world circumstances. Further I was confounded by the idea that digital signals, ones carried by optical TOSLINK connectors, could be somehow influenced by the transmitting cable. In my own tests with some of the cables from the store and the same cable that came with my MiniDisc player (yes, I spent way too much on one) I couldn’t find any differences in the resulting recordings, despite the store cables being noticeably thicker.
The reason for this is, whilst there’s a little bit of room to argue that a better quality cable will produce a better quality signal for analog, a digital signal either makes it through completely or not at all. The cable quality then, whilst needing to be above a certain threshold for it to work, makes no difference whatsoever once its past said threshold. This hasn’t stopped the premium cable manufacturers from claiming otherwise however charging rather ludicrous for products that amount to, let’s be honest here, nothing more than a $5 cable. I’d also go as far to say that premium cables for pure analog signals aren’t worth it either, especially at the price point that some of them command.
Of course I don’t believe you should just take my word for it (however compelling you might find it to be) nor do I advocate running out and spending wads of cash on cables to see if there’s a difference. Instead just have a look at posts like this one on Audioholics where self proclaimed audiophiles could not reliably distinguish between a premium speaker cable and ordinary speaker wire (and even coat hanger wire). Indeed anyone who’s attempting to sell you cable based on the idea that it will somehow improve the quality of the picture or sound on the other end is either deluded, misinformed or simply ignorant of the underlying science that governs modern audio visual equipment.
There will be those who will say that I don’t understand the differences and that there’s tangible benefit in getting these ludicrously over priced cables. In all seriousness those expensive cables might actually sound better for them, through some wild psychoacoustic placebo effect where they’re actually willing themselves into believing that its better. It’s an unfortunate situation for them as the cheaper cables (as long as they’re aware of them) will in fact sound worse. It’s from these people that the premium cable manufacturers will continue to extract value and unfortunately I don’t believe there’s a whole lot that can be done about it.
So if you’re on the fence about getting those expensive cables or if you don’t know if you should then the answer is pretty clear: don’t. Your cash is much better spent on a higher quality TV set or speakers than it ever will be spent on cables to connect those devices together. Should a salesman tell you otherwise ask for a demo of them side by side and see if you can spot the difference yourself. If you do then I won’t stop you from buying them, but know that in reality the difference is all contained within your head.
I’ve been drooling over the specifications of my next computer for well over a month now, tweaking bits here and there to ensure that the PC I end up building will provide the best value for money I can get. Sure there are a few extravagances in it like the Corsair H70 water cooling kit and the Razer Megasoma mouse pad but otherwise it’s a very respectable rig that will serve me well over the course of the next few years. The initial design I had in my head however failed to account for a few of the real world issues that actually building this system would entail, forcing me to make some tough decisions.
Firstly the case I currently use, a Lian Li PC-B20B, has a drive cage that only fits 4 hard drives in it. Sure I’d probably be able to stuff one in the floppy bay but its far from an ideal solution and it just so happens that the perfect place for the water cooling kit would be right smack bang where the hard drive bay currently is. I’m not sure how I stumbled across it but I saw this awesome product from Lian Li the EX-34NB which converts 3 of the front drive bays into 4 internal hard drive bays, complete with a fan. It was the perfect solution to my dilemma allowing me to have the 4 storage drives and the water cooling solution living together in my case in perfect harmony.
Of course then I asked myself the question, where would the SSD go?
The obvious choice would be in the floppy slot since I have 2 of them and neither of them are getting used, but I may have to remove the cage to fit the water cooler in there (it looks to be a tight fit from the measurements). Additionally the motherboard I’m looking at going with, the AsRock P67 Extreme6, comes with a nifty front bay adapter for a couple USB3 ports that doubles as a SSD mounting kit. This means though that I’d have to be giving up one of the longest lived components that I’ve kept for the better part of a decade, my dual layer DVD burner.
I couldn’t tell you exactly when I bought it but I do know I shelled out a good $200+ dollars for my little IDE burner, top of the line for its time. I can tell you one of the primary reasons I bought it however, it came with a black bezel that matched my gigantic black case perfectly. It was the perfect little work horse and whilst its dual layer abilities were only used a couple times when I forayed into the dark world of Xbox360 “backups” it still burnt many a DVD for me without complaint. It had also developed a curious little quirk over the years, opening with such force that it thought someone had pushed it back in after it had opened, causing it to promptly close. Still it functioned well for what I needed and it stayed with me through 2 full computer upgrades.
Thinking back over the past year or so I can only think of a few times that I ever really needed to burn a DVD for something, most of the time being able to cope quite well with my trusty little flash drive or network shares. Indeed many of the games that I bought either had a digital distribution option or were copied to my hard drive before attempting to install them. Whilst I’d be sad to see the one component that’s been constant in my computing life for such a long time to go I really can’t see a need for it anymore, especially when its taking up a potential mounting spot for my future SSD.
That’s not to say I think that optical media and their respective hardware are dead though, far from it. Whilst the cost of flash drives has come down significantly over the past decade they’re still an order of magnitude more expensive to produce than an optical disc. Indeed even in the lucrative server markets nearly all vendors still provide their updates and tools on CDs simply because the cost of doing so on a flash drive is just too high. Sure if you included the cost of the drive in that whole equation that might change matters slightly but like the floppy drive before it we’ve still got a good decade or so before optical media will be phased out of normal use, although it will still hang on for a long time to come.
It was an interesting realization for me to come to since optical media is the first format I witnessed being born, gain mainstream adoption and then begin to fade in obsolescence. Of course I’m still a long way from being rid of optical drives completely, my PC will be one of only 2 PCs in my house to not have an attached optical drive, but it is the signal that things are moving on and the replacement of flash media is ready to take the helm.
I’ll have to find a fitting home for my long time pal, probably in the media PC where he’ll get used every so often.