Auckland Museum solves mapping mystery

Detail from a 1908 chart showing Sandy Island
in the Coral Sea

There’s been a lot of talk about the accuracy of maps recently, particularly with regard to Apple’s iOS Maps application. In fact Richard Williamson, the guy in charge of the Apple Maps team, recently lost his job. Perhaps he can take some comfort from the fact that maps always contain errors and that cartography, even in the age of satellites, is not always an exact science.
    Recently a story surfaced (no pun intended) about the mysterious disappearance of Sandy Island in the South Pacific. The 26 km long island in the Coral Sea is clearly shown in charts dating back to the 1700s and is shown on Google Earth as a mysterious black lozenge. This year some Australian scientists set out to visit Sandy Island only to find open ocean.
   Auckland Museum has now solved the mystery by studying its archived charts. One of these shows that Sandy Island was discovered by the ship Velocity in 1876. But there is a note on the chart which warns: “Caution is necessary while navigating among the low lying islands of the Pacific Ocean. The general details have been collated from the voyages of various navigators extending over a long series of years. The relative position of many dangers may therefore not be exactly given.”  So it seems that maps always contain errors – perhaps Richard Williamson has a case for unfair dismissal from Apple.

from The Universal Machine


The tech behind the #Hobbit

Yesterday it was rather hard to avoid The Hobbit’s premiere in Wellington – but as computer scientists we’re much more interested in the technology than in the red carpet. Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s FX company isn’t camera shy but I’ve only been able to find this description of the infrastructure they deploy to make movies like LOTR, King Kong, Avatar and now The Hobbit. Adam Shand, former lead of Weta Digital’s infrastructure team describes Weta Digital’s data centre using 35,000 CPU cores in its “renderwall” and 3,000TB of storage. The distributed Weta campus buildings are “connected with a minimum of redundant 10Gbps connections with 40Gbps EtherChannel trunks in any situation in which storage and the renderwall needed to talk to each other.” A full description including architecture diagrams is provided by Shand in this NetApp blog post. Since this describes the infrastructure used for Avatar I guess Weta Digital will be more powerful today. In the video below Paul Gunn, of Weta Digital, describes their technology.

from The Universal Machine

The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk

There’s been a spate of articles  (like this one) recently about the potential risks and ethics of lethal AIs – drones that can acquire targets autonomously and robots, like the Terminator, hunting down and killing people. Whilst I’ve blogged about this before I was surprised to suddenly see the web alive with speculation and comment. I think I’ve tracked down the source; a new Cambridge University research centre called “The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk.” 
    The CSER is co-founded by Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price, astrophysicist professor Martin Rees and Skype’s co-founder Jaan Tallinn. Prof Price says, It seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology.”  He adds that as robots and computers become smarter than humans, we could find ourselves at the mercy of “machines that are not malicious, but machines whose interests don’t include us“.

from The Universal Machine

95 year old woman honoured for working with #Turing – radio interview

Ursula Frost

Ursula Frost, a 95 year old Auckland woman, who worked with Alan Turing at Bletchley Park during WWII has finally received the honour she so richly deserves. Fluent in French and Greek she was recruited to work for M18 at Bletchley in 1940 when she was just 23. She recalls that Turing was a “‘very nice chap.
   Today Jonathan Coleman, MP for Northcote in Auckland, presented her with a special badge honouring her services. Ursula was also interviewed for Radio New Zealand’s National Programme. We should not forget that thousands of people worked at Bletchley, under total secrecy, and most passed away without ever receiving any acknowledgement for their vital work. It’s lovely to see Ursula Frost given the recognition she so richly deserves.

from The Universal Machine

The world’s oldest working computer

Let’s get this clear before we start – the headline says “the world’s oldest working computer,” not “the world’s first computer.” The oldest working computer is The Harwell Dekatron, later called the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell (WITCH). It was first powered up in 1951. Over the last three years, the WITCH has been restored  by The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park where  it’s now on display . It’s been powered up and is working its way through some of its original 1950s programs.

from The Universal Machine

New Zealand’s first computer programmer

An ICT1201

My colleague Bob Doran, a keen computing historian, has written this blog post.

Ruth Engleback must be close to the earliest computer programmer surviving in NZ. Now in her 80th year, she immigrated to NZ in August 1962 with her husband and two children (four more were born in NZ.) She lives on Albany hill on a 10-acre block where the family has been since 1965.
   Ruth (nee Thomson) was one of first group of four trainee woman programmers
hired by BTM in 1954. She stayed with the company until July 1959 just
before the birth of their first child. The group of trainees were from various
backgrounds; her’s was running all facets of a building-company office – the
others had degrees or tab-machine experience. Among other projects she
developed the code for the Middlesex City Council payroll who had 3,000 (?)
employees. Her job title was “Installation Officer” and involved systems analysis,
programme writing and machine testing at Stevenage.
   In Auckland she was approached by Motor Specialties towards the end of 1963
to help set-up their ICT1201 system. She thinks that MotorSpecs learned of
her because of a contact made by her husband who went goldmining in the
Coromandel with Reg Middleton. At Motorspecs she worked with Warwick
Johnson (son of MS owner?) getting the system operating. She stayed for about
a year. She later went back to MS in 1979 when they had an ICL1902T – her
daughter Lucy also worked for MS. MS replaced their ICL equipment with IBM
when Bruce Rankin became head of the department.
   She is certain that the MotorSpecs’ 1201 was second hand and came from the
NZ treasury. She also recalls hearing that NZ had bought a 1201 when she was
working for BTM in England. She thinks that the Motorspecs 1201 was replaced
by a 1300 in 1964-65 and the 1201 was given to ATI. She gave a course to ATI
staff on programming the 1201. She thinks that ATI passed on the computer to
   Programming of the 1201 was done at the machine language level. When
writing programs they did write the opcodes in mnemonics but had to hand-
translate them to binary. The 1201 was an optimally-programmed machine –
each instruction had the address of the next so the programmer had to arrange
the instructions on the (drum) memory to ensure that there were no large inter-
instruction delays. Setting up the 1201 for a task also involved wiring plug-
boards of an attached tabulator to route data appropriately. Because the memory
of the 1201 was so small, most tasks involved punch card dataprocessing
techniques with sorted decks of cards?

from The Universal Machine

Narwhals, Orcas and the US elections

What do whales have to do with the recent US Elections? No, neither candidate campaigned on a pro or anti-whaling ticket. If you read this fascinating long read by the Altlantic’s Alexis Madrigal called “When the Nerds Go Marching In,” you’ll learn all about the people and the technology that helped Obama win reelection. It turns out that Obama had put together a dream team of nerds and geeks to run his campaign tech that Romney just couldn’t match. This is a great example of how computer science is changing the world in ways you wouldn’t expect.

from The Universal Machine