Category Archives: Opinion

Speculating about SteamOS

It’s been a tremendously long time since any new content appeared here (I’ve even been considering shutting this web log down) but today I find myself eager to share some thoughts!

What could stir me from my slumber? Somewhat surprisingly I find myself uncharacteristically excited about a gaming platform and, as I no longer share an office with fellow nerds, I have no recourse other than to gush at the internet.

Despite not being a huge gamer (I have likely bought fewer than half a dozen games in the last two years) Valve’s recent announcement of SteamOS has me rather excited. There are three main paths along which my mind wandered when pondering what SteamOS could be:

Firstly, as a self-confessed operating systems nerd (and someone who has spent most of his career on the fringes of that world) I’m excited to see how Valve have architected their Linux-based OS. Whilst it’s possible that they could just choose to ship a spin of an existing Linux distribution (such as Ubuntu or Fedora) I’m hoping they’ve been a little more adventurous.

Thinking about SteamOS for a few minutes whilst browsing their announcement page a system more akin to Android in many ways comes to mind – a highly customised OS platform tuned to the needs of an entertainment device, rather than a stripped down generic OS. I’m certainly not drawing the comparison with Android because I’m expecting Valve to have written huge swathes of OS components that make SteamOS a different beast to a more traditional Linux, quite the opposite – I fully expect them to make use of the excellent Linux userspace which is readily available and widely tested. It’s how they put their OS together and structure things in terms of distributing software, updates and security (more below) which I expect to be different. Particularly as there’s unlikely to be any need to consider ‘legacy’ applications.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that I half-hope, half-expect Valve to be using the tools of the Yocto Project to develop their custom Linux-based OS. Standing on the shoulders of giants in the Yocto community Valve could, with a relatively small team of engineers, create their OS with a focus on the unique requirements of their entertainment platform instead of getting bogged down in the sundry, largely solved, problems of distribution construction.

Secondly, as someone with an increasing interest in information security and secure and trusted Operating Systems I see a good requirement in the platform for interesting security work. I look forward to interesting security solutions which balance human factors (I expect the SteamOS to be primarily driven by a joypad) with the need for a hardened OS which protects a user and their sensitive data (most likely banking details) from attack whilst ensuring the platform remains as non-intrusive as possible.

Finally, as a Linux developer, I’m rather excited about the prospect of folks (particularly some of my friends and family) having Linux-based entertainment machines in their living rooms. I’ve been thinking about a largely vapourware project to build a digital platform to enable pen and paper role players to game with their group, regardless of geographical separation. The project has remained vapourware, at least in part, because each imagined iteration has fallen short of anything tangible – largely because there hasn’t been a compelling platform to target. I have considered (and in some cases prototyped) targeting the XBox, the web and tablets, as well as writing a cross-platform desktop solution, but have hit road blocks when attempting to architect for each of them. (Side-note: huge kudos to the Roll20 team for realising the vision). I hope to be able to target SteamOS using the tools I am familiar with and re-using components of a gaming platform, such as multiplayer chat facilities.

Oh yeah, fourthly – video games! \o/

Update (14/12/13) – the first version of SteamOS was released yesterday and it looks to be a fairly stock GNU/Linux created as a Debian derivative.

Part time academic

As is possibly quite obvious from an earlier post, I am currently engaged in a course of part time graduate studies.

I’m going to ruminate somewhat on the why and the what here, primarily because I’d like to  improve my writing skills (and therefore need to write more often).

I’ve wanted to further my education and specialise my knowledge with post-graduate study since before I completed my undergraduate, yet it took me a few years to figure out which subset of Computer Science I would attempt to become an expert in. That story, however, would be a significant divergence at this point.

In short I’m studying on a part-time, distance learning, taught Masters program in Intelligent Systems (IS) with the Centre for Computational Intelligence (CCI) at De Montfort University (DMU).

This is essentially a graduate program in Artificial Intelligence (AI), for a definition of which I turn to one of the founders of the field:

“… the science of making machines do things that would require intelligence if done by humans” – Marvin Minsky

and for a slightly longer definition I point interested readers to a definition from the Children’s Britannica by Dr Joanna J. Bryson and Dr Jeremy Wyatt.

Why AI? It’s a field I’ve been interested in since first studying a module in Soft Computing during my undergraduate.

The social scientist in me is intrigued by the idea of pure AI; creating artificial life, observing it grow and evolve, understanding how humans interact with it and how it interacts with humans, etc.

The pragmatist (and idealist) in me, however, is extremely intrigued by the application of computational intelligence techniques to augment the human condition. A future where humans can avoid the 3 D’s of robotics – tasks which are dangerous, dirty and dull.

Many examples of such life enhancing work exists. Originally I had thought to mention (and link to) a great many, but instead I’ve opted to mention only a few current projects I’ve read about recently:

It’s worth noting that I don’t believe the two notions of pure AI and applied AI to be contrary. Indeed it seems that many well respected practitioners work on both theoretical and applied elements of CI. I hope to write more on this in the future.

Why DMU and the CCI? Last autumn I took the free Stanford online AI class and had really enjoyed the fact that I could work through the class without being beholden to a strict schedule which might interfere with my 8-10 hour work days. I wanted to continue this with my further education.

With this in mind I did some research into available distance learning programs and the CCI offers a great course structure with interesting modules taught by a department with a strong publication record and experience of real-world applications of CI techniques.

How is the course so far? I’m a huge fan of the organisation and assessment, so far as I’ve experienced in the single module that I’ve completed this far. The course encourages reading papers and practical application of the techniques.

I can’t wait for the next term to start!

Severed Fifth

Jono Bacon, of Lugradio, Recreant View and Ubuntu fame, has announced his new project – Severed Fifth.

Severed Fifth Logo

Although I had made a fairly accurate guess as to the purpose of the project (once Jono had alluded to it on his blog and Lugradio) I’m pleased to be able to report that I am still excited by the announcement. Jono’s intended goals are much grander than I had originally expected, and from the initial release it looks like he has a good plan to realise those goals.

At the moment the project seems to be in a stage of gathering interest and laying groundwork but I believe the eventual aim of the project is to enable relatively unknown artists to make musical releases in a similar way to that which has gained NIN and Radiohead a lot of press and, more importantly, fans and sales.

That way being a bypassing of the traditional record labels and releasing content under permissive licenses with a wider range of distribution and purchasing options.

I have briefly mentioned before my interest in this new paradigm for release and distribution of music, it ticks all the right boxes as both a music and freedom enthusiast and any effort to enable this for more artists is one that I will have great interest in.

The distribution model as promoted by Severed Fifth and already utilised by Jonathan Coulton and Trent Reznor is to release the music under a free to share license (typically on of the Creative Commons licenses) which permits the licensee to share the music with very few restrictions.

Physical and digital versions of the media can be purchased as required yet sharing of the music, even via methods scorned by the traditional music industry, is not only allowed – but actively encouraged by the artists/distributors.

What makes Severed Fifth interesting as compared to similar previous efforts by individual acts is that Severed Fifth is a project to enable other bands to more easily embrace this distribution model, giving Severed Fifth the image of being a new age record label. Artists which have been successful with this distribution model so far seem to, in my experience, have either a significant bank roll or sufficient technical knowledge to implement the model on a budget.

Roger and I where discussing what we thought of the potential for Severed Fifth before Jono announced it yesterday and we came to the conclusion that, while significantly less famous than Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, Jono has a level of ‘celebrity’ (or at least a widely syndicated voice) which gives him an edge in setting up a community such as this.

Jono is in a unique position to leverage his community management abilities and popularity through other efforts to bring more people and skills to Severed Fifth which I hope will make the project more successful for a broader range of artists.

This project is exciting for musicians, music fans and freedom lovers. I wish Severed Fifth the best of luck and sincerely hope it succeeds! At the very least I’ll get some more free metal music from Jono. 🙂