Wednesday, November 30, 2011

60+ years of the modern computer

Manchester University's Dept of Computer Science maintains an excellent website celebrating its role over 60 years in developing the modern computer. In addition to lots of back ground materials there are some excellent videos including one by the BBC from 1948 about the Manchester Baby.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

IBM's cognitive computing initiative - SyNAPSE

Not content with winning Jeopardy with Watson IBM is now combining principles from nanoscience, neuroscience and supercomputing in a  cognitive computing initiative called Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE). By reproducing the structure and architecture of the brain—the way its elements receive sensory input, connect to each other, adapt these connections, and transmit motor output—the SyNAPSE project  aims to emulate the brain's computing efficiency, size and power usage without being programmed.
    IBM say, "Today's computers are little better than calculators; ruled by the von Neumann architecture for over half a century, they use storage structures and programmable memory that scientists are endlessly aiming to improve. However, the human brain - the world's most sophisticated computer - can perform complex tasks rapidly and accurately using the same amount of energy as a 20 watt light bulb and consuming as much space as a 2 liter bottle of soda. Researchers at IBM and collaborating universities are working to build cognitive systems that can learn and perform complex tasks such as action, recognition and perception, while rivaling the low energy and power consumption of the human brain."
    The IBM SyNAPSE project website is here with lots more information and videos.

SyNAPSE: IBM Cognitive Computing Project - Overview

The thinking machine

Is this another in the series of computer science songs? Perhaps, or is it kinetic sculpture? Possibly both. "The 'Thinking Machine' is a ternary computer that outputs melodies formed by three sounds as resulting from the calculations. Whether binary or ternary, it is a computer in the terms of a Turing machine. In Thinking Machine the algorithm is fixed as a mechanical mechanism so it is not a versatile Turing machine or von Neumann type computer. However, like all computers Thinking Machine is a logical machine that can process code, and is an actual object that expresses discrete time within real time." 



Monday, November 28, 2011

Grant a pardon to Alan Turing


A new online petition to the British government is asking for a pardon for the conviction of Alan Turing http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/23526 It says:
    We ask the HM Government to grant a pardon to Alan Turing for the conviction of 'gross indecency'. [...] A pardon can go to some way to healing this damage. It may act as an apology to many of the other gay men, not as well known as Alan Turing, who were subjected to these laws.
    Before you rush to sign what seems like a very worthy cause you should read John Graham-Cumming's reasons for not supporting the campaign. He was the person who organised the recent apology from the British government to Turing.
You can then decide if you want to support the new petition or not.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Excellent video about Universal Turing Machines

This short video gives and excellent overview of Universal Turing Machines and Alan Turing's inspired discovery that one machine can solve any problem that has become the origin of all modern computers. It features a short interview with Steve Wozniak amongst others.

Siri continues to amaze

Articles about Siri continue to appear in the tech blogs and publications as people increasingly start to recognise how important Siri is. It reportedly correctly understands commands about 9 times out of 10, which if you think about it is probably better than a person would. Siri also ask for confirmation and tells you if its not sure, which lets face it people often aren't so good at. Here is an interesting video clip comparing Microsoft's TellMe on Windows Phone 7 and Siri.
More articles are also appearing about the Apple iTV, which is rumoured to be in production in China. The addition of Siri to this as the primary means of interfacing with a TV could be amazingly powerful, which I've been predicting here since mid October.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Four degrees of separation

A recent study by The University of Milan and Facebook has shown that the old adage "6 degrees of separation" that connects any two people on the planet is not true. The new study of 69 billion Facebook friendships (the largest social network study ever) shows that 92% of us are connected  by only four degrees (five hops). Take a moment and think about this ... Choose anybody, Barack Obama perhaps; it is probable that a friend of a friend of yours, knows a friend of a friends of Obama's! The researcher also shows that within the same country most pairs of people are separated by only three degrees (four hops). They'll need to rename that Kevin Bacon game.

My favourite scientist - video

Here's a short video from the "My Favourite Scientist" series about Alan Turing.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Computer Science songs #2

Thanks to Jörg Cassens (@cassens) who tweeted in response to the Halting Problem song "@driwatson one to see and I raise with the longest path ur1.ca/60nai (thanks to Felix:)"
The Longest Path
Very amusing. If I say, "keep the computer science songs coming please" will this blog be inundated with geek songs? Only one way to find out.


Britain's Greatest Codebreaker - review

Ed Stoppard plays Alan Turing
I watched the new Channel 4 doco on Alan Turing last night and here's my review. Let's be honest if you want to watch a documentary about Alan Turing you've not got much choice so you're likely to watch this one. First it's strengths; basing the dramatised reconstructions around Turing's sessions with psychiatrist Dr Franz Greenbaum works very well. This narrative device allows different aspects of Turing's life to be visited in a natural way; though what was actually said in those sessions must be pure speculation. The interviews with people who knew Turing, and with Greenbaum's daughters in particular, were a delight and really helped flesh him out. Ed Stoppard plays Turing very well; he doesn't have the stammer and ticks of Derek Jacobi's portrayal, but instead he plays with his fingers, bites his nails and looks both intelligent and troubled.
    I've been wondering what the documentary makers intention was; what they wanted the viewer to take from their efforts? I think they want us to get to know what drove Turing, where his genius sprung from and why he was eventually driven to suicide. It's always going to be hard to get inside a man about whom we know so little.  We are encouraged to believe that Turing's desire to excel in science sprang from his wish to live up to the expectations of his dead childhood sweet-heart Christopher Morcom. This may well be true. His desire to excel at code-breaking was driven by patriotic duty, something that would have been drummed in to him at public school. His desire to kill himself was brought upon by depression caused by his chemical castration and the increasing pressure he was coming under from a paranoid secret service obsessed with spies and Cambridge homosexuals. In the final scene you do wonder why Dr. Greenbaum didn't put Turing under suicide-watch.
    So what of Turing's great scientific achievements? The concept behind the Universal Turing Machine is brought across nicely in a long segment that features Steve Wozniak, amongst others, giving credit to Turing for inventing the computer. His work at Bletchely Park is somewhat glossed over; but let's be honest this aspect of his career has been well covered elsewhere and is what people already know Turing for if they know him at all. In contrast rather longer is spent on his later work on biological morphogenesis, which is likely to be new to most viewers. Turing is presented as a man who invented the idea of the computer, who cracked the German Naval Enigma codes, thereby winning WWII and saving millions of lives, and who invented the disciplines of artificial intelligence and bioinformatics - quite enough for one genius I think.
   If you want you can criticise this documentary for not explaining in detail how Enigma was cracked and not even mentioning the Lorenz cipher but that would be a different film. This one wants to tell us more about Turing the man and given that we know so little about his personal life it succeeds.

A song about Turing's Halting Problem

Once againa big thanks to The Turing Century for spotting this one - a song inspired by Turing's Halting Problem (no it doesn't play in a loop forever).

The Klein 3-Group - No Deciding

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The book is a physical reality


The Universal Machine

On Sunday April 4 2010 I started this blog; the first post was "Welcome." which said:
"Welcome to the blog of the writing of the Universal Tool
I've been writing a book, on and off, for several years now. The book is intended to be a popular science book about the history of computers. I'm a computer scientist by profession and so I've long had an interest in this subject.
   The idea of this blog is to encourage me to keep working on the book by being able to share both the process of writing it and elements from it with who ever decides to follow the blog of just drop by."

    Yesterday I printed out the entire book for the first time. It's a strange feeling seeing the book's manuscript sitting there on the table. Strange but good. Incidentally the blog has been very useful in writing the book. 

Britain's Greatest Codebreaker - documentary

Ed Stoppard plays Alan Turing
The new Channel 4 documentary about Alan Turing, Britain's Greatest Codebreaker has been aired on UK TV. It can be streamed from the 4onDemand website if you live in the UK or if you can persuade the website to believe you have a UK IP address. UK papers are all carrying reviews, like this one in the Independent.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Autonomous cars - sooner than you think

The US state of Nevada has just passed legislation  that would allow autonomous cars on it highways by March 2012. An operator of an autonomous vehicle would still need a current state driver’s license. The law defines an autonomous vehicle as “a car that uses artificial intelligence, sensors and GPS to coordinate itself without active intervention by a human operator.” The law also acknowledges that the driver does not need to be actively attentive if the car is driving itself. Without the law, inattentive driving would likely land you with some sort of reckless driving citation under the guise of previous laws.
The Stadtpilot autonomous car drives in Braunschweig, Germany

Why should we encourage the development of autonomous cars? Consider this, the US has lost 6,279 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. Last year 33,000 people lost their lives in road traffic accidents in the US! The United Nations estimated in 2004 that 1.2 million people were killed and a further 50 million injured on the world’s roads. China recorded 96,000 deaths and India 105,000 traffic deaths. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of injury death amongst children worldwide, and even in the US they are the sixth leading preventable cause of death. Clearly, if we can do something to stop this carnage, we should. It turns out people are lousy drivers.


Why is Siri important?

As people get more used to the new iPhone 4S it seems that Siri, as I predicted back in early October in this blog, is becoming the stand out feature. People are reportedly buying the new iPhone 4S just because of Siri and some commentators are hailing a new revolution in how we interact with computers. By far the best article I've read about Siri is called Why is Siri important? by Brian Roemmele in Quora.com. In it he traces the origin of Siri back 40 years to DARPA funded work at SRI and describes how SIRI works in a better way than any other (non-technical) writer I've come across. Of particular relevance to people who are developing iOS apps is this excerpt:
    "Once one really understands how people will use Siri it is not too hard to see that quite a number of very popular apps and sadly some business plans may become redundant or perhaps less useful. The new model may not be apps as much as structured Cloud APIs to deliver data to Siri.  Over time it is perhaps easy to see the ecosystem that will develop around Siri and the APIs that are allowed to connect.  I am not at all predicting the end of apps as we know it in any way or form.  However I am predicting that we will see a Darwinian adaption to the new ecosystem Siri will create.  It will be of very high importance to see this trend developing and adjust business models accordingly. Perhaps the opportunities that will be available for Siri backend cloud APIs may be as large as the opportunity the iTunes app store has created." 

Monday, November 21, 2011

LEO - the automatic office (1957)

Whilst on the subject of the Lyons Electronic Office and its 60th birthday I came across this great archive video. It's a promotional video for Leo made in 1957. Yes the British were advertising office computers in 1957! It's a really wonderful look back into a different age.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

LEO celebrating the pioneers

Google's blog features a great article on LEO that includes a very interesting video, which interviews some of the people who developed and used LEO.
LEO Celebrating the Pioneers

Friday, November 18, 2011

LEO - worlds first business computer turns 60

LEO
The Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) is 60 years today. Commissioned by J. Lyons &Co., the once famous UK company that ran a nationwide chain of tea shops, LEO was first used in 1951 to calculate how much it cost to bake and distribute cakes. This was the first commercial use of a computer. The American Airlines ticketing system, which became SABRE, didn't go live until 1960. In fact in 1956, Lyons started doing payroll calculations for Ford UK using LEO's spare capacity; so they also invented IT outsourcing.  The Leo Computer Society maintains an interesting archive on this great British first!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Chinese Room

John Searle
The Turing Century blog has started a debate about the Turing Test for machine intelligence vs. John Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment. Searle claims that his elegant thought experiment shows that computers can never think no matter how smart they appear as they are just manipulating symbols, which after all is all that a Turing machine does. My take on this is as follow, but first I'll explain the Chinese Room  in case you're not familiar with it. (Note: this is an exert from the final chapter of my book The Universal Machine)
    Imagine you are sitting in front of room with a locked door. You are a native Chinese speaker and you’re able to ask questions of the room by writing them down in Chinese characters on pieces of paper, which you post through a slot in the door. The room replies in Chinese by sending its written replies back through the slot. You spend time asking the Chinese Room factual questions and then progress to asking its opinions on the economy, politics the arts and you even ask it to tell you some jokes. All of its answers are perfect, just what you’d expect from an intelligent Chinese person. It has passed the Turing Test with flying colors – therefore it must be intelligent.
    Then Searle unlocks the door and shows you inside the Chinese Room. Inside waiting to receive questions is an Englishman who doesn’t speak or read Chinese. He takes each received question and identifies the Chinese characters from a big ledger and writes down their corresponding numbers. He then, in a complex and laborious process, cross-references the numbers with other ledgers and indices and eventually obtains more numbers from which he obtains new Chinese characters that make up his answer. He writes these characters down and posts them back through the door.

    Does the operator understand Chinese? The answer is obviously no. He’s just following a laborious mechanical process, a program. In fact he needn’t even know the characters make up a language called Chinese. Does the operator understand the questions? Again the answer must be no; he doesn’t even know they are questions because he doesn’t understand Chinese. Therefore the Chinese Room is not intelligent and never can be. It is, as Jefferson [a professor who clashed with Turing over machine intelligence] observed, just moving symbols around; there is no understanding.
    AI experts, including myself, have struggled with Searle’s simple thought experiment. It does seem to show that a universal machine by manipulating symbols can never be said to think. My take on this problem is to consider the example of flight. Do birds fly? Of course they do, not all birds, but most do and some do very well. Do planes fly? Yes they do, but they fly in a very different way to birds. Planes don’t have feathers and they don’t flap their wings, but they can fly great distances and carry much more weight than even the largest bird. Therefore, flight is something that birds and planes both do but by using different methods. Birds are living animals that have evolved to fly and planes are engineered artifacts; machines that we have designed to fly.
   Computers, like [IBM's] Watson, are machines that we have engineered to think. Watson isn’t made of flesh and bone and it doesn’t have a brain, but it appears to think, just not in the same way that we do. For some reason when it comes to intelligence and consciousness we are much more sensitive about the abilities of our creations. If we engineer a machine that performs as well as birds we proudly claim it flies but if we engineer a machine that performs as well as or better than people in a game show we doubt it’s thinking. I believe in the future the question of “do computers think?” will be one that most people will not even consider. We’ll just all take it for granted that computers act as if they are thinking and that’s good enough. Philosophers will still be arguing about this in the future and the religious will always believe that machines don’t have souls.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Full text of PM's apology to Alan Turing

I've been unable to find the full text of Gordon Brown's apology to Alan Turing online; lots of quotes from it, but not the full text. I visited Bletchley park recently and they have the original letter framed in a display; so I photographed it and have now transcribed it. The transcript is below the photos of the letter.



Remarks of the Prime Minister Gordon Brown
10 September 2009

This has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude that characterise the British experience. Earlier this year, I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against fascism and declared the outbreak of the Second World War.
So I am both pleased and proud that thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship: that of code-breaker Alan Turing.
Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of the Second World War could have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely.
In 1952, he was convicted of “gross indecency” – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.
Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I am and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and so many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly. Over the years, millions more lived in fear of conviction. I am proud that those days are gone and that in the past 12 years this Government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue.
But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for this contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out European civilisation for hundreds of years.
It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present. So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say: we’re sorry. You deserved so much better.
Gordon Brown


Action This Day! Save Bletchley Park

Hut 8 (right) where Alan Turing worked during WWII
"£1.7 million in match funding must be raised by the Bletchley Park Trust in order to unlock the £4.6 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for the restoration of Bletchley Park. The crumbling Codebreaking Huts have been offered a lifeline by the HLF but it is a race against time to raise the funds needed to complete the investment package before they are lost to the nation forever.
When the Codebreakers wrote to Churchill, in October 1941, starved of resources to do their essential work, Churchill immediately ordered, “Action this day! Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done”.
Exactly seventy years on we are repeating Churchill’s request. The Bletchley Park Trust has received tremendous support over the past few years but now a permanent solution is so close and we need public support more than ever. In broad terms each £1 from you will unlock £2.70 more from HLF."
The above is a direct quote from Bletchley Park's Action This Day! campaign to raise funds to restore Bletchley Park. If you've visited you'll know Bletchley is a huge rambling estate filled with dilapidated WWII buildings Only a handful of the buildings, like Hut 8 shown above, have been restored. Bletchley Park deserves better. You can donate via PayPal and once the target is reached your donation will unlock £4.6 million.



Sunday, November 13, 2011

What a coincidence - Alan Turing & Alan Garner

I just learned that one of my favourite authors as a child, Alan Garner who wrote The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a magical fantasy story (think Harry Potter crossed with The Lord of the Rings) was a friend of Alan Turing. They used to run together in Manchester. He writes a nice piece in the Guardian stating that Turing was his hero.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ada Lovelace - the 1st computer programmer


Lady Ada Lovelace

An article in engadget today: Researchers begin work on Babbage Analytical Engine, hope to compute like it's 1837," commenting on a good story in the New York TimesIt Started Digital Wheels Turning claims that Ada Lovelace was the world's first computer programmer. She collaborated with Charles Babbage to translate Luigi Menabrea's description of Babbage's Analytical Engine from Italian into English. However they fell out over what should be included in the final paper and published separately; hers in Scientific Memoirs and his in The Philosophical Magazine.
    Ada's Sketch of the Analytical Engine was very well received, and her lengthy additional notes to Menabrea's original description gave her the freedom to muse on the Engine's more philosophical aspects. She comments that: "The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves... Supposing for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptation, the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent."
    
In her notes to the paper she describes an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It is considered the first algorithm written for implementation on a computer, but it is far from being a "program," more like pseudocode. Nonetheless, she was a remarkable lady and well deserves her honours.

[Note: a project called Plan28 is now underway to build a working Analytical Engine - the world's first steam-powered PC]

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Adobe Kills Mobile Flash

The tech news today is alive with Adobe's announcement that it's Flash plugin for mobile browsers will no longer be developed. Bugs for the existing plugin for browsers on Android and Blackberry will be fixed but there will be no new development. Instead the company will focus on HTML5 which allows browsers to do the same nifty animations and movies but is an open standard.
    Journalists immediately started to say the Steve Jobs has had the last laugh since he famously refused to allow Flash onto iOS devices. It's now hard to disagree. In April 2010 Jobs published an open letter to clarify his reasons called, "Thoughts on Flash", which said,  "Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short...New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind."
    It's hard to see now why developers would use Flash if they had the choice between HTML5 and Flash; unless they either don't have HTML5 skills (and are unwilling to learn) or are so bound to Flash for legacy reasons they have no real choice. I know this to be the case for several who are know faced with the decision of investing in HTML5 or seeing their products increasingly relegated to a shrinking PC ghetto.
    Adobe also announced it was cutting 750 jobs.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Universal Machine - the end (spoiler alert)

I've written the end...the last paragraphs of the final chapter...well in draft anyway.

[spoiler alert - don't read any further if you don't want to know the end]


   In the far future some predict you will become a set of qubits in various superpositions within a simulation of your reverse engineered brain. Computers and human minds will merge into a single superintellect. This intellect will be able to travel the universe at the superluminal speed of quantum entanglement; we will first become a galactic intelligence and ultimately a universal one, omnipotent and omnipresent - Gods.
    We will exist forever in Turing’s universal machine.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson - review pt. 2

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Ok I've finished reading Walter Isaacson's authorized biography Steve Jobs and what have I learned that I didn't already know. Jobs was more demanding and ruder than I thought; he frequently committed that cardinal sin of being really nasty and mean to waitstaff. You know there's no excuse for that behavior; they (usually) don't deserve to be treated without respect. I expect Jobs ate and drank quite a lot of other people's spit during his life - you really can't send a fruit smoothy back to the kitchen several times because "it's not quite right" and not expect some form of karmic retribution. It's constantly posited in the book that Jobs demanded perfection, that his high standards helped people around him excel and that his rudeness was just the flip-side of this - a "you can't have one without the other" thing. But, Jobs was deliberately rude to people he didn't respect, and there were certain people: Steve Wozniak, John Lasseter, Jonny Ive whom he was never (or at least rarely) nasty to, because he needed their creative genius to work for him.
   This gets us to Jobs true talents; he was very good at spotting people who had great gifts and who could be really useful to his plans: Steve Wozniak, John Lasseter, Jonny Ive again come to mind, along with the original Macintosh design team & the iPod design team. He nurtured them, gave them space, defended them and yes encouraged them to do great work, in many cases their best work for him. He also had a gift, because he wasn't a programmer or a very good electrical engineer, of seeing that tech gadgets: from the first PCs to early MP3 players and most mobile phones were horribly hard to use. He made them easier to use, but we'd be wrong in thinking we've reached the end of that road. Finally, Jobs was a really good negotiator most of the time. There are certainly examples where his rudeness and stubbornness soured a good deal, but most of the time, and several times spectacularly, he was a great negotiator for Apple and Pixar.
    In the end the flaws in his character sadly hastened his demise; had he taken his doctors' advice and had a quick operation to remove the tumor from his pancreas he may well still be alive - he really paid the ultimate price for believing he always knew better. [Part 1 of the review is here]

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Honeywell Kitchen Computer

This is so good I had to share it. In 1969 Honeywell announced the H316 pedestal model as the latest upmarket kitchen appliance to be sold by the luxury US department store Neiman Marcus. The "Kitchen Computer" featured an integrated chopping board and was "useful for storing recipes." The perfect homemaker would have to  take a two-week course to learn to program the device, using only a toggle-switch input and binary light outputs.
    The full text of the advertisement reads "If she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute. 
Her souffles are supreme, her meal planning a challenge? She's what the Honeywell people had in mind when they devised our Kitchen Computer. She'll learn to program it with a cross-reference to her favorite recipes by N-M's own Helen Corbitt. Then by simply pushing a few buttons obtain a complete menu organized around the entree. And if she pales at reckoning her lunch tabs, she can program it to balance the family checkbook. 84A 10,600.00 complete with two week programming course. 84B Fed with Corbitt data: the original Helen Corbitt cookbook with over 1,000 recipes."
   
It was the first computer ever sold to the home consumer; although Wikipedia report that there is no evidence that anybody ever bought a Kitchen Computer - what a shame! A Kitchen Computer is on display at the Computer History Museum.

The Digital Underworld

Not all of my book is upbeat and about the benefits of computing. Chapter 12, called "The Digital Underworld" is about hacking. It starts off cheerfully enough with an introduction into the world of the phone phreakers and early student hackers playing innocent pranks on each other and sysadmins. 1984 was the pivotal year; Neuromancer was published, WarGames was released, 2600: The Hacker Quarterly was first published and legions of young men started hacking from their bedrooms. These early hackers were driven by curiosity and the intellectual challenge of breaking into systems but they were quickly joined by those who were driven by greed. Criminals had realized it was safer to hack into a bank than to tunnel into the vault. In 2011 in addition to organised cybercrime we are faced with the prospect of cyberwar conducted by officially sanctioned cyber forces such as US Cyber Command and the Chinese Cybermilitia Unit. Hacking has come along-way since Captain Crunch and his plastic whistle.
Want more information? Here's a good article called Crime and malware: A short history of computer fraud

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes

Bill Tutte
Last week the BBC broadcast a documentary called: Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes. I watched this last night and it is excellent. Unusually for a documentary about Bletchley's code-breakers it is not all about Alan Turing, Engima and U-boats. As you know from this blog I'm a huge Turing fan but he wasn't the only person working at Bletchley Park and Enigma wasn't the German's best cypher machine.
    This documentary is about cracking the German High Command's Lorenz machine cypher or "Tunny" as the Brits called it. Unlike Enigma, which was invented in the 1920s and sold commercially (yes you could buy an Enigma machine before WW II and several were in use in England), Lorenz was state-of-the-art. It operated on telex transmissions rather than morse radio and it's operation was seamless; the sender typed in the message, their Lorenz machine encrypted it and the receiver's Lorenz machine decrypted it, all without any human intervention. The Allies had never seen a Lorenz machine and had to infer how it worked.
    This remarkable feat was done by a young mathematician called Bill Tutte. Once the logical structure of the Lorenz machine was deduced Turing and Max Newman set about cracking the cypher. Newman designed an electro-mechanical machine nicknamed "Heath Robinson" to automate the laborious process known as Turingery. Like the cartoonists fabulously complex contraptions Robinson was prone to failure. A young electrical engineer called Tommy Flowers who worked at the Post Office Research Station designed an electronic replacement called Colossus - this was the worlds first electronic computer. By the end of the war there were 10 Colossus computers at Bletchley Park and the Allies were routinely reading all of the German High Commands telex traffic - Hitler's direct commands to his generals!
   So if you've never heard of Bill Tutte, the Lorenz cypher, Tunny, Max Newman, Tommy Flowers or Colossus this excellent documentary will open a whole new chapter in WW II code-breaking for you. The documentary is available to watch on the BBC's website if you live in the UK. It's also available to download (illegally) from the usual bit-torrent search engines.

video
A working replica of Colossus at Bletchley Park