CD sales fall as iTunes rises

Maybe I’m just old-school. But I still buy music on CDs. (Mostly from live concerts). And I still want to be able to listen to my music in 10 years, which is a lifetime in the tech industry. What’s the likelihood that the companies responsible for today’s DRM schemes will still be in business in 2017?

According to music industry analysts though, I’m in the minority. They’re starting to ask Is the CD Becoming Obsolete?

iTunes is now the third largest music retailer in the country – this according to stats from the first quarter of 2007. iTunes has 9.8% of the retail music marketshare with Wal-mart taking 15.8% and Best Buy 13.8%. That’s a LOT of music sales.
In contrast, and to give you a perspective of the change, has a 6.7% share while Target has around 6.6%.

Petaflops from IBM and Sun

New IBM supercomputer achieves petaflop

IBM has devised a new Blue Gene supercomputer–the Blue Gene/P–that will be capable of processing more than 3 quadrillion operations a second, or 3 petaflops, a possible record. Blue Gene/P is designed to continuously operate at more than 1 petaflop in real-world situations.

Blue Gene/P marks a significant milestone in computing. Last November, the Blue Gene/L was ranked as the most powerful computer on the planet: it topped out at 280 teraflops, or 280 trillion operations a second during continuous operation.

The chip inside Blue Gene/P consists of four PowerPC 450 cores running at 850MHz each. A 2×2 foot circuit board containing 32 of the Blue Gene/P chips can churn out 435 billion operations a second. Thirty two of these boards can be stuffed into a 6-foot-high rack.

The chip inside the Blue Gene/L contained two PowerPC cores running at 700MHz.

The 1-petaflop Blue Gene/P comes with 294,912 processors and takes up 72 racks in all. Hitting 3 petaflops takes an 884,736-processor, 216-rack cluster, according to IBM. The chips and other components are linked together in a high-speed optical network.

Sun seeking supercomputing glory

The TACC system will provide a peak performance of around 500 teraflops, or 500 trillion operations a second. A fully built-out Constellation system, with contemporary components, could hit a peak of 2 petaflops, or 2 quadrillion operations per second.

The linchpin in the system is the switch, the piece of hardware that conducts traffic between the servers, memory and data storage. Code-named Magnum, the switch comes with 3,456 ports, a larger-than-normal number that frees up data pathways inside these powerful computers.

“We are looking at a factor-of-three improvement over the current best system at an equal number of nodes,” said Andy Bechtolsheim, chief architect and senior vice president of the systems group at Sun. “We have been somewhat absent in the supercomputer market in the last few years.”

Don’t invite her – she’s so … MySpace

Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace

Class divisions in the United States have more to do with social networks, social capital, cultural
capital, and attitudes than income. Not surprisingly, other demographics typically discussed in class terms are also a part of this lifestyle division. Social networks are strongly connected togeography, race, and religion; these are also huge factors in lifestyle divisions and thus “class.”The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other “good” kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we’d call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, “burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

A month ago, the military banned MySpace but not Facebook. This was a very interesting move because the division in the military reflects the division in high schools. Soldiers are on MySpace; officers are on Facebook.

Bubble Survivor

BigBand Networks, founded at the height of the bubble in 1999, went public in March. They are one of the few companies initially funded in 1999-2000 to ever go public. This has prompted speculation by some VC firms that other bubble children might make it over the line.

Venture-financed survivors of Internet bubble hope to go public

Venture firms backed 4,757 companies during the hectic years of 1999 and 2000 but only 128 of them, or 2.7 percent, have staged an initial public offering, according to Dow Jones VentureOne.

Nearly 38 percent of the companies that got their first venture capital in those years went out of business, but not before getting a total of $35.6 billion in equity. Another 30 percent have been acquired, some for attractive prices but many for less than the amount VCs committed.

But that still leaves plenty of bubble survivors in venture firms’ portfolios – a total of 1,422 as of late April, according to VentureOne. These 1,422 companies have received a total of about $50 billion in venture capital and employ more than 150,000 people. Moreover, one-third of them are profitable.

M&A will remain the chief exit for venture investors. Even a robust public market won’t be able to absorb all VCs have to offer. Last year, 416 venture-backed companies were acquired, while 56 went public.

But the clock is ticking for the bubble survivors. Venture funds are typically 10-year affairs, and investors will be looking for ways to exit from companies they backed seven or eight years ago. Companies that can’t go public or find a suitable corporate acquirer might wind up getting sold to other private equity firms, although examples of this so far are limited.

Vivid geek dreams

Beautiful, sensual, colorful photos of … computers?

Core Memory is a new art book by photographer Mark Richards that celebrates the beauty of vintage computers.

In a stunning mix of art photography and geek worship, Richards has managed to focus on the digital guts of computers and transform them into vibrant portraits that conjure both emotion and nostalgia.

Most of his photos were taken at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. I recognize some of my favorites:

  • The HAL-like console of the CDC 6660.
  • The compact origami stack of the Apollo Guidance Computer.
  • The amazing quixotic complexity of the Illiac IV super computer.

If some cookbooks are “Food Porn”, this new book redefines “Computer Porn”.

Control Data (CDC) 6660 console
Control Data (CDC) 6660 console.

Apollo Guidance Computer prototype
Early prototype of the Apollo Guidance Computer, developed by MIT and built by Raytheon.

Wiring in the Illiac IV
Wiring in the Illiac IV, designed at University of Illinois, and built by Burroughs.

The evolution of faith

A fascinating article in the New York Times magazine a few months ago discussed the evolution of religion. That is, how did religious belief become such an important part of human culture? The answer seems to be that humans are already wired for religion.

The article surveys what we know about how humans think, and how this might predispose us to belief in the supernatural. And the rituals of religion may confer other societal advantages. Which makes being an atheist a bit of a challenge, even in our enlightened age.

Continue reading “The evolution of faith”

Streaming through the feeds

I.B.M. to Show Stream Computing System

In stream computing, advanced software algorithms analyze the data as it streams in. Text, voice and image-recognition technology, for example, can be used to determine that some data is more relevant to a particular problem than others. The priority data is then shuttled off into a program tailored to work on complex, fast-changing problems like tracking an epidemic and predicting its spread, or culling data from electronic sensors in a computer chip plant to quickly correct flaws in manufacturing.

The initial system runs on about 800 microprocessors, though it can scale up to tens of thousands as needed, I.B.M. said. The most notable step, researchers say, lies in the System S software, which enables software applications to split up tasks like image recognition and text recognition, and then reassemble the pieces of the puzzle into an answer.

Gravity, on the other hand, is complete hogwash

Democracy is not perfect. Our governments can only be as wise as the politicians who run for office. And there are a lot of ways of corrupting the system. Large campaign donors buy votes and influence. Redistricting guarantees that incumbents will stay in power. And well-organized special interest groups can wield power far beyond their size. To the extent that a minority can decide who is worthy of seeking office.

And so it seems that the current Republican presidential candidates, like their predecessor, George Bush, are doing everything they can to court conservative evangelical Christians. In last month’s Republican candidates debate, three of the nine candidates said they do not believe in evolution. (Senator Sam Brownback, Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Rep. Tom Tancredo).

Senator John McCain tried to play both sides, saying while he believes in evolution, “I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also”.

The theory of natural selection is the basis of all our modern understanding of biology, medicine and the environment. It has passed every test for the past 150 years and is accepted as fact by virtually all scientists in the world today. And yet neither the current President, nor these Republican candidates choose to believe it.

The cynic in me would say that a third of the Republican candidates are just playing to the religious right wing. But more likely is that these intelligent men really do not believe in evolution. The Republican party is dominated by religious conservatives, who promote these like-minded candidates.

Of course, evolution is real, no matter how many polititians deny it. But when they refuse to accept an idea that runs counter to their religious beliefs, regardless of overwhelming evidence, how can we expect them to make good policy decisions? How will they make rational choices about major issues in science, medicine or the environment?

To his credit, Gov. Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon, also accepts evolution. He apparently has been able to reconcile his religious beliefs with scientific evidence.

“I believe that God designed the universe and created the universe,” Mr. Romney said in an interview this week. “And I believe evolution is most likely the process he used to create the human body.”

He was asked: Is that intelligent design?

“I’m not exactly sure what is meant by intelligent design,” he said. “But I believe God is intelligent and I believe he designed the creation. And I believe he used the process of evolution to create the human body.”

While governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Romney opposed the teaching of intelligent design in science classes.

“In my opinion, the science class is where to teach evolution, or if there are other scientific thoughts that need to be discussed,” he said. “If we’re going to talk about more philosophical matters, like why it was created, and was there an intelligent designer behind it, that’s for the religion class or philosophy class or social studies class.”

Old chips on the space station

Over the weekend, Russian cosmonauts were able to restart two flight control computers on the International Space Station that had been crashing for the past few days. They tracked the problem down to a faulty surge protector which they were able to bypass. Props to those resourceful Russians, but it doesn’t give you much confidence in the ISS electronics. Especially since if they had not been able to fix the computer glitch, they would have had to evacuate the station.

Turns out that those computers (made in Germany) are a vintage design, made from 12-year old computer chips.

The computers use radiation-hardened ERC32 three-chip processors that came from the factory in 1995 or so. The chips had to go through a grueling round of tests, during which some serious floating-point glitches were identified and fixed. Then they were incorporated into the DMS-R computers that went up with the Russian-built Zvezda module in 2000.

Go another level deeper, and you’ll find that the ERC32 chips are based on the SPARC V7 chip architecture, which was pioneered by Sun Microsystems and came out in 1986.

The software running on those chips has a California connection as well: It’s written on top of the VxWorks operating system, produced by Wind River Systems in Alameda, Calif. VxWorks, a Unix-like real-time programming platform, is a popular choice for spacecraft software: It was used on the 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission as well as NASA’s Stardust probe and the still-operating Mars Exploration Rovers.

Mama needs a new bag

An article on wealthy American’s ‘insatiable appetite’ for luxury goods profiles a poster child for fashion addiction:

Louis Vuitton this spring pre-sold its limited number of $40,000-plus handbags made up of a patchwork of samples from different spring and summer collections. The bags cost only slightly less than the median household income of $46,326, as reported by the Census Bureau.

Nadine Absolam, a 32-year-old Brooklyn resident, says she likes to have the trendiest designer items, but she said it’s getting harder to come up with the cash.

“My first priority should be my bills. But these designers bring out so many hot items that you must have these things,” said the Pilates instructor. “I am always late with my bills.”

Absolam spends about $1,000 in clothing and accessories per month, about half of her monthly salary. One of her most recent buys was a $1,100 Gucci messenger bag; her boyfriend last Christmas bought her Fendi’s “Spy bag,” priced at around $3,000 and coveted by fashionistas.