The history of early computing (in pictures)

Here’s a lovely set of pictures of early computing machines from ancient times to 1981 – from the abacus to the IBM personal computer, curtesy of io9. Some of these will be familiar to you, but you’re bound to see some new machines.

The Chinese Abacus ‘Suan Pan’

from The Universal Machine


Is your data safe in the cloud?

I don’t mean is it safe from government spies? I think we can assume after the NSA revelations that governments can access your data whenever they want.  I mean will it always be there for you to access? What if the cloud storage company you use goes bust, or what if a legal fight closes them down. Are you certain you’ll be able to gain access to your data? You read all the small print on the terms and conditions before you clicked “Accept” didn’t you? The Guardian reports that Kim Dotcom, in a series of angry tweets,  has claimed that internet-hosting company LeaseWeb has wiped data from 630 servers that were used by his online storage service, Megaupload. One tweet said “Millions of personal #Megaupload files, petabytes of pictures, backups, personal & business property forever destroyed by #Leaseweb.” Clearly there will be many ex-Megaupload users who will have irretrievably lost data that was important to them.
    With more and more of us being encouraged to store our data in the cloud it’s perhaps inevitable that a cloud storage provider will go belly up in the future taking people’s personal data with them. I think the industry needs some form of code of conduct or legal assurance that people’s data will remain accessible for a time after a company’s collapse. Of course the NSA probably has a copy – perhaps they have a valid role after all!

from The Universal Machine

Buy The Universal Machine for $3.96

I rarely shamelessly plug my book, but two events in the last week mean that there has never been a better time to buy your own copy or to buy one as a gift. First, Amazon has discounted its price down to a remarkable $3.96 (that’s $10 cheaper than the Kindle edition). If you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber you’ll get free shipping on that! Second, Library Picks Reviews, an Amazon Top 500 Reviewer, has just given The Universal Machine a wonderful 5 star review. I’m going to quote their review in full.

Passes the Zuse Test… June 10, 2013
Any book on computing history that misses Zuse– the 1938 inventor of Tron, the Matrix, The 13th Floor, Avatar… and many other world views that posit the universe running inside a big computer– hasn’t done it’s homework.
   Although the two page (80-82) summary on Zuse isn’t long, it is accurate and detailed. I mean, who else would try to build a 30,000 part computer in a barn in Nazi occupied Germany? Not many figured out the genius of this man, from computing to cellular automata, but Siemens obviously did (they bought him out before he passed on in 1995).
Does anyone know how this fine book can be under $5 with free Prime shipping at nearly 400 packed pages? I know, I’ve got to be dreaming — somebody unplug the link.
   Wow, even at text prices it’s worth it, here, it’s a steal! It is “Dover” priced yet contains CURRENT information– the “history” goes back to the Middle Ages, but brings us right up to everything from dedicated embedded to universal multis and beyond. NOT a dry read– fun, carries the reader along, and if you’ve got a few years behind you as I do, will elicit a smile at where we’ve been as well as where we’re going. After all, there really was no web in 1985, so many people alive today saw nearly the entire evolution of the modern computer age!
   In that context, it’s great to see the “seeds” going way back, as well as Tron and the Matrix. Zuse’s first machine was perfect and correct, but didn’t work because the milling and machining sciences were not developed enough for the precision required. (We know this because it WAS later built just to see, and worked!). Like the guy who wrote “I, Pencil” (no, not robot) to show that it takes thousands of brilliant technologies to make a pencil, we take a LOT for granted in what we see today in computing. This awesome book adds back the wonder.
   Highly recommended even as a plane trip or late night substitute for your favorite novelist. Some of the info really is eye opening, as in, “Did you know that…” with your friends on Facebook.
   Library Picks reviews only for the benefit of Amazon shoppers and has nothing to do with Amazon, the authors, manufacturers or publishers of the items we review. We always buy the items we review for the sake of objectivity, and although we search for gems, are not shy about trashing an item if it’s a waste of time or money for Amazon shoppers. If the reviewer identifies herself, her job or her field, it is only as a point of reference to help you gauge the background and any biases.

from The Universal Machine

Google project Loon over New Zealand

I’m not quite sure why Google chose to test its new X Project, called Project Loon, in New Zealand – but the view is stunning. The idea sounds crazy – WiFi carried by high altitude ballons to provide Internet access to remote areas of the planet – perhaps “loon” is short for “loony.” But crazy or not the idea is being tested in the South Island of New Zealand near Lake Tekapo. The ballons fly twice as high as commercial jets and can even be steered a little by increasing or decreasing their altitude to move them into different wind patterns. The idea is to provide constant coverage to remote parts of Africa and Asia without the need for expensive and hard to install and maintain ground infrastructure. Google is looking for “pilot testers” in New Zealand so if you’re interested in testing Loon you can sign up hereNeedless to say the media reporting this story couldn’t resist a few sheep jokes. No hobbits were mentioned though.

Project Loon from Google – Balloon-powered Internet from Trey Ratcliff on Vimeo.

from The Universal Machine

Video games made real

If you watched the Apple WWDC Keynote last week you’ll have seen a live demo by robotics company Anki. Their “aim is to bring artificial intelligence (AI) into people‚Äôs everyday lives.” Their demo, which didn’t go entirely without a hitch (anyone who’s ever given a live demo knows that feeling), was a new take on the classic game of slot cars. Only this wasn’t a video game played on an iPhone or iPad, but a real racing game on a track on the floor with real little cars.
    The track was simply unrolled on the floor and the cars placed on it. They communicated by Bluetooth to an iPhone, however the cars are not driven by the iPhone but are rather given strategic commands. Watch the video below which explains it all – I can see Anki Drive being a popular Christmas gift. It also clearly demonstrates the great advances in recent years in sensor technology, algorithms and processing speeds.

from The Universal Machine

The Bill Tutte Memorial Fund

The Bill Tutte Memorial Fund has been established to provide a lasting memorial to the man who was almost single handedly responsible for the “greatest intellectual feat of World War II.” If you’re thinking but wasn’t it Alan Turing who cracked the German Enigma code then you really need to learn about Bill Tutte. I’m not going to give you his full story (if you want that read The Universal Machine), but the short story is he worked out the internal logic of the German High Command’s Lorenz machine, an encryption device much more complex than Enigma, without ever having seen what a Lorenz machine looked like.
   Working at Bletchley Park, his breakthrough was put into practice by Tommy Flowers and resulted in the world’s first computer, Colossus. It’s widely believed that the Soviets captured several Lorenz machines as they invaded Germany and believing them invulnerable continued to use them into the 1960s, unaware that the British could crack them. This resulted in so much secrecy surrounding Lorenz, Tutte, Flowers and Colossus that even after Turing and Enigma had become part of popular history they remained unknown.

from The Universal Machine

Just because you’re paranoid…

With the news full of stories of the massive digital surveillance of Google, Facebook, YouTube, Apple and other companies’ servers by the US NSA and of shadowy spy systems, with names like Prism and Echelon, perhaps we should all be a little more paranoid. Jacob Appelbaum, a key developer of Tor, gave a keynote speech at 29C3 (29th Chaos Communication Congress) last year. Yes, he seemed a bit paranoid, but with hindsight, not so much. [Only the intro to the video is in German]

from The Universal Machine