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Friday, November 16, 2007

Beatles online soon says Sir Paul

The Beatles in 1967
Solo music by all four Beatles members is available online
The Beatles' music should be available online next year, Sir Paul McCartney has told a US music website.

"It's down to fine-tuning, but I'm pretty sure it'll be happening next year, 2008," he told

The Fab Four are one of the last major acts to withhold their back catalogue from stores like iTunes and Napster.

Sir Paul said the delay was due to contractual issues and planning by all parties involved. "You've got to get these things right," he said.

"You don't want to do something that's as cool as that and in three years time you think, 'Oh God, why did we do that?'"

Sir Paul added: "There's just maybe one little sticking point left, and I think it's being cleared up as we speak, so it shouldn't be too long."

Albums by the late Beatle George Harrison were made available online last month, meaning solo music by all four band members can now be bought digitally.

EMI is believed to have been on the verge of releasing The Beatles' back catalogue as digital downloads since February, when the band's record label Apple Corps settled a long-running trademark dispute with technology giant Apple Inc.

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Sony makes most of Wii shortages

PlayStation 3
The PlayStation 3 was launched last year in Japan
Sony is taking advantage of Nintendo Wii shortages and a recent price cut of the PlayStation 3 to double weekly sales of the console in the US.

Sony boss Howard Stringer told the Associated Press news agency: "It's a little fortuitous that the Wii is running out of hardware."

Two weeks after the price cut Sony sold 100,000 PS3s in seven days.

Mr Stringer said the increase in sales of the console was "the breakthrough we have been anticipating."

He added: "Obviously, we've taken so much heat over the year on PS3. Finally, the turning point has been passed."

Nintendo has become a victim of its own success, with many shops in the US and UK struggling to meet demand.

A spokesman for Nintendo UK denied that the company was witholding supply to boost interest.

"The video games market is a fiercely competitive one and it is not in our interest to withhold stock from anyone," he said.

Microsoft and Nintendo have not released weekly sales figures for their consoles.

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Getting more from Moore's Law

Chips and a penny
The silicon industry has already introduced new materials such as Hafnium

For more than 40 years the silicon industry has delivered ever faster, cheaper chips.

The advances have underpinned everything from the rise of mobile phones to digital photography and portable music players.

Chip-makers have been able to deliver many of these advances by shrinking the components on a chip.

By making these building blocks, such as transistors, smaller they have become faster and firms have been able to pack more of them into the same area.

But according to many industry insiders this miniaturisation cannot continue forever.

The number of transistors it is possible to squeeze in to a chip for a fixed cost doubles every two years
First outlined by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel
Published in Electronics Magazine on 19 April, 1965

"The consensus in the industry is that we can do that shrink for about another ten years and then after that we have to figure out new ways to bring higher capability to our chips," said Professor Stanley Williams of Hewlett Packard.

Even Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel and the man that gave his name to the law that dictates the industry's progression, admits that it can only go on for a few more years.

"Moore's Law should continue for at least another decade," he recently told the BBC News website. "That's about as far as I can see."

Tiny tubes

As a result, researchers around the world are engaged in efforts to allow the industry to continue delivering the advances that computer users have come to expect.

Key areas include advanced fabrication techniques, building new components and finding new materials to augment silicon.

Already new materials are creeping into modern chips.

As components have shrunk critical elements of the transistors, known as gate dielectrics, do not perform as well allowing currents passing through the transistors to leak, reducing the effectiveness of the chip.

To overcome this, companies have replaced the gate dielectrics, previously made from silicon dioxide, with an oxide based on the metal hafnium.

The material's development and integration into working components has been described by Dr Moore as "the biggest change in transistor technology" since the late 1960s.

But IBM researchers are working on materials that they believe offer even bigger advances.

"Carbon nanotubes are a step beyond [hafnium]," explained Dr Phaedon Avouris of the company.

'Superior' design

Carbon Nanotubes
Sheets of carbon atoms folded into a cylinder
Unusual strength and electrical properties
Promise to revolutionise electronics, computers, chemistry and materials science
Carbon nanotubes are tiny straw-like molecules less than 2 nanometres (billionths of a metre) in diameter, 50,000 times thinner than a strand of a human hair.

"They are a more drastic change but still preserve the basic architecture of field effect transistors."

These transistors are the basic building blocks of most silicon chips.

Dr Avouris believes they can be used to replace a critical element of the chip, known as the channel.

Today this is commonly made of silicon and is the area of the transistor through which electrons flow.

Chip makers are constantly battling to make the channel length in transistors smaller and smaller, to increase the performance of the devices.

Carbon nanotube's small size and "superior" electrical properties should be able to deliver this, said Dr Avouris.

Crucially, he also believes the molecules can be integrated with traditional silicon manufacturing processes, meaning the technology would more likely be accepted by an industry that has spent billions perfecting manufacturing techniques.

The team have already shown off working transistors and are currently working on optimising their production and integration into working devices.

Tiny improvement

Professor Williams, at Hewlett Packard is also working on technology that could be incorporated into the future generations of chips.

As well as exploring optical computing - using particles of light instead of electrons to significantly increase the speed of today's computers - he is building new electronic components for chips called memristors.

Cross-bar latch

He says it would be the "fourth" basic element to build circuits with, after capacitors, resistors and inductors.

"Now we have this type of device we have a broader palette with which to paint our circuits," said Professor Williams.

Professor Williams and his team have shown that by putting two of these devices together - a configuration called a crossbar latch - it could do the job of a transistor.

"A cross bar latch has the type of functionality you want from a transistor but it's working with very different physics," he explained.

Crucially, these devices can also be made much smaller than a transistor.

"And as they get smaller they get better," he said.

Professor Williams and his team are currently making prototype hybrid circuits - built of memristors and transistors - in a fabrication plant in North America.

"We want to keep the functional equivalent of Moore's Law going for many decades into the future," said Professor Williams.

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Cleaning up in 'fab world'

HP fab worker

The process of making silicon chips is as complex as the chips themselves.

Each manufacturing plant, or "fab", may cost billions of dollars and is a triumph of engineering.

But working inside these hi-tech plants can be a surreal experience, says Dr Peter Wilson of the University of Southampton.

"Fab world" is like no other place on earth.

Its pristine white walls, secure air locks, sterile air and ethereal yellow lighting makes it seem like you have arrived in the belly of an orbiting space station.

I can still remember the first time I went there.

It was set in classic "tumbleweed" territory - a small town in Arizona with just one road and the factory.

The temperature was over 100 degrees outside, with dust everywhere, but when you crossed the threshold into the plant, the air-conditioning kicked in and you felt like you were in a different world.

This is a common experience to anyone who works in the silicon manufacturing sector. The world outside and the fab world inside are on two different planes.

The boundary can transcend geographic and political boundaries - it can become impossible to tell which country you are in, when everyone is wearing a mask, and is dressed head to foot in shapeless, white hooded-suits.

'Bunny men'

Outside, we worry about dirt on our shoes and wipe our feet, or perhaps wipe some dust off our laptop screen. In fab world, we worry about a few atoms contaminating the environment.

If dust falls on the delicate silicon wafers on which chips are printed it can render them useless.


microprocessor infographic

Microchips are built from wafers that consist of 99.9% pure silicon. The silicon is made from common beach sand.

1 of 11

Modern transistors - the tiny switches at the heart of these devices - are described in terms of the smallest feature sizes that can be made, such as a 45 nanometres, or 45 billionths of a meter.

To put this in perspective, the average human hair will be between 20 and 100 micrometers across - over a thousand times larger - and a typical dust particle will be anything from 1 to 100 micrometres.

Dust and contaminants must be kept out.

The fab is a place for chips, not for people. As a result, only the pure and the clean are given permission to penetrate its' inner chambers.

Anyone that enters must go through a strict set of procedures.

All of the trappings of the outside world must be left behind, whether clothes, jewellery or even make-up.

A series of ante-chambers serve as prep rooms where workers change into a series of gowns and gloves, collectively known as a "bunny suit".

Sticky floors make sure that no one treads in any contaminants and an air shower before entry makes certain that any loose particles are stripped away.

Skin flakes, lint, hair and anything else gets sucked into the grate in the floor.

Pure products

And then it's onwards into the hum of the clean rooms. Stark white walls reflect the yellow sodium lights from above and a constant breeze blows down from the ceiling taking any particles through the gridded floor.

peter wilson
Fab world is an expensive place and, hence, it never stops
Peter Wilson

In modern fabs, ultra high tech chips are manufactured in what are known as class 1 rooms that contain just one tiny particle per metre cubed. In contrast, a room where open heart surgery takes place may have as many as 20,000.

Everything taken in either needs to be cleaned with alcohol or specially designed. Even the paper we use to take notes is designed from a special lint-free material.

Inside, humans very rarely come into contact with the rainbow-streaked discs of reflective silicon on which the chips are cut.

Instead, they are there to trouble shoot and monitor that everything goes correctly.

The silicon wafers are handled on monorails that move above the fab floor and the processing is done by complex vacuum sealed robots.

The wafers enter one end of the line costing a couple of hundred dollars and appear at the other - weeks later - patterned with billions of transistors and worth tens of thousands of pounds.

The silicon itself is not made at the fab - the ultra pure ingots (up to 99.99999999% pure) are produced and cut by specialist companies and sold to the chip makers.

The fab world's magic is creating the incredibly complex patterns of wires and circuitry on chips the size of a postage stamp time and time again

That alchemy can cost billions of dollars.


Each layer of a processor is constructed using a mask which is like a stencil, to highlight the areas to be deposited, etched or doped.

Intel fab plant
Each plant can cost billions of dollars

Doping involves adding impurities to the silicon to change its electrical characteristics - something which has to be done with astonishing precision.

Each mask used to cost several thousand pounds but as the complexity of chips has increased, and the smallest possible feature size has reduced, the number and intricacy of these masks has increased.

In addition, the size of individual features is now smaller than the wavelength of light that used to be used to pattern them, which means the use of some clever optics is required.

The yellowish lights used inside the fab are to make sure that they do not interfere with this process.

The result of all of this is that an individual silicon integrated circuit may require masks that cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, or perhaps even millions of pounds, to produce and machines that cost a similar amount.

Fab world is an expensive place and, hence, it never stops.

The plants churn out chips every single day of every year. So called giga-fabs may process more than 100,000 wafers every month, each containing hundreds of chips.

Each one of the 10mm by 10mm silicon squares is a triumph of design.

As a chip designer, the impact of the incredible complexity of fab world has led to an amazing transformation in what we can do on a single chip.

The products of this strange and surreal place have burst out of its confines and have pervaded every facet of the outside world from computers and mobile phones to aircraft and microwave ovens.

Yet, incredible as it is to visit, fab world is also a place that is blissful to leave.

At the end of the day there's no better feeling than being able to rip off the itchy bunny suit, step outside into the searing heat and once again get dirty.

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Future directions in computing

Silicon electronics are a staple of the computing industry, but researchers are now exploring other techniques to deliver powerful computers.

Quantum computing graphic
Quantum computers are able to tackle complex problems
A quantum computer is a theoretical device that would make use of the properties of quantum mechanics, the realm of physics that deals with energy and matter at atomic scales.

In a quantum computer data is not processed by electrons passing through transistors, as is the case in today's computers, but by caged atoms known as quantum bits or Qubits.

"It is a new paradigm for computation," said Professor Artur Ekert of the University of Oxford. "It's doing computation differently."

A bit is a simple unit of information that is represented by a "1" or a "0" in a conventional electronic computer.

A qubit can also represent a "1" or a "0" but crucially can be both at the same time - known as a superposition.

This allows a quantum computer to work through many problems and arrive at their solutions simultaneously.

"It is like massively parallel processing but in one piece of hardware," said Professor Ekert.

'Complex systems'

This has significant advantages, particularly for solving problems with a large amount of data or variables.

"With quantum computing you are able to attack some problems on the time scales of seconds, which might take an almost infinite amount of time with classical computers," Professor David Awschalom of the University of California, Santa Barbara told the BBC News website recently.

In February 2007, the Canadian company D-Wave systems claimed to have demonstrated a working quantum computer.

At the time, Herb Martin, chief executive officer of the company said that the display represented a "substantial step forward in solving commercial and scientific problems which, until now, were considered intractable."

But many in the quantum computing world have remained sceptical, primarily because the company released very little information about the machine.

The display also failed to impress.

"It was not quite what we understand as quantum computing," said Professor Ekert. "The demonstrations they showed could have been solved by conventional computers."

However, Professor Ekert believes that quantum computing will eventually come of age.

Then, he said, they will not be used in run-of-the-mill desktop applications but specialist uses such as searching vast databases, creating uncrackable ciphers or simulating the atomic structures of substances.

"The really killer application will probably be in designing new materials or complex systems," he said.

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Colossus loses code-cracking race

Colossus in operation during wartime, PA
Bletchley's code-breaking effort shortened the war by many months

An amateur cryptographer has beaten Colossus in a code-cracking challenge set up to mark the end of a project to rebuild the pioneering computer.

The competition saw Colossus return to code-cracking duties for the first time in more than 60 years.

Radio problems meant delays in getting Colossus deciphering three messages that were transmitted from Germany.

But before it got going Bonn-based amateur Joachim Schuth revealed he had managed to read one of the messages.

"He has written a suite of software specifically for the challenge," said Andy Clark, one of the founders of the Trust for the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park where Colossus is sited.

News of Mr Schuth's success reached Bletchley Park on Thursday night, said Mr Clark.

The re-built Colossus

The target messages, enciphered with a Lorenz S42 machine as used by the German high command, were transmitted by a team of radio enthusiasts in Paderborn, Germany.

However, radio reception problems throughout the day on Thursday meant that the British code-cracking team did not get a full copy of the enciphered messages until 1700 GMT.

"For that all credit must go to Milton Keynes Amateur Radio Society," said Mr Clark. "They worked tirelessly yesterday."

A copy of the ciphertext in the messages was loaded onto the re-built Colossus at 0855 GMT on Friday morning, said Mr Clark.

"The wheels are spinning right now," said Mr Clark, adding that the team hopes to have the message cracked by midday on Friday.

At the same time as Colossus is cranking through the messages a separate team will use modern PC technology to read the scrambled messages.

hand plugs in telephone cable on rebuilt Colossus

The ciphertext from the messages will also be placed on the museum's website so amateur code-crackers who do not have access to radio can have a go at breaking the signals.

Colossus is widely recognised as being one of the first recognisably modern computers in that it could be programmed. It was the size of a small lorry and used more than 2,000 valves.

Tony Sale led the 14-year Colossus re-build project and it took so long because all 10 Colossus machines were broken up after the war in a bid to keep their workings secret. When he started the re-build all Mr Sale had to work with were a few photographs of the machine.

In its heyday Colossus could break messages in a matter of hours and, said Mr Sale, proved its worth time and time again by revealing the details of Germany's battle plans.

"It was extremely important in the build up to D-Day," said Mr Sale. "It revealed troop movements, the state of supplies, state of ammunition, numbers of dead soldiers - vitally important information for the whole of the second part of the war."

Close-up of Colossus, Bletchley Park

This, and the other information revealed by the code-cracking effort at Bletchley, helped to shorten the war by at least 18 months, said Mr Sale.

The Cipher Challenge is also being used to mark the start of a major fund-raising drive for the fledgling National Museum of Computing. The museum will be based at Bletchley and Colossus will form the centre-piece of its exhibits.

Colossus has a place in the history of computing not just because of the techniques used in its construction.

Many of those that helped build it, in particular Tommy Flowers, went on to do work that directly led to the computers in use today.

The museum said it needed to raise about £6m to safeguard the future of the historic computers it has collected.

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