Archive for July, 2009

Computers and the Internet

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

I’ve been using computers for over 35 years now. My first experience was when I was in the Sixth Form at school when my mathematics teacher managed to get access to the University computing facility for her sixth formers. This allowed us to go to the university computing centre, by bus, and use their punch card machines to create a deck of cards in Fortran IV (we had access to the Waterloo FORTRAN (WATFOR) compiler). The university had a “cafeteria” system whereby one left a deck of cards and later that day (or in my case, typically, the next day) one went along to collect the output. This certainly taught one the importance of checking one’s typing and programming before submitting it. It was no fun to pick up punch cards and output that just consisted of a listing of the program with “Syntax Error” marked somewhere on it.

At university I also had access to both an ICL 1900 series computer which I programmed in Algol 68R, but also spent spare time at the University Programming Research Group using a Modular One computer and writing code in BCPL. A group of students were writing (or at least attempting to write) an Algol 60 compiler. Algol 60 had lots of interesting features that were challenges to compiler writing.

There have been amazing developments over the years. Perhaps particularly the development of ARPAnet (I was fortunate to have access to ARPAnet when I started work) which led to the internet and then the World Wide Web which has led to the situation where most people (in the developed world, at least) tends to bump up against computing and the internet. Unfortunately, in other ways I wonder whether things have really improved. Graphical User Interfaces have come a long way, and I really appreciate the MacBook on which I’m typing this, but a lot of other software is not necessarily much better than software written many years ago, except for the whizz-bang graphical front ends. Donald Knuth’s “The Art of Computing” series of books are as relevant now as they were when the first volumes were produced in the late ‘60s.

I find it sad that so few people who use computers and the internet have any idea of what is “under the hood”. Of course, this is partly why virus and malware writers have such a good time.

Busy on holiday

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

It has been over a week since adding to this blog. I had intended to write something every couple of days but have been busy on holiday. It is an interesting phrase “busy on holiday” but all too often is my experience of holidays. I always want to see things or visit places and the idea of doing nothing just doesn’t appeal. Thus one finds that one goes back to work for a rest!

Apollo 11 40th Anniversary

Monday, July 20th, 2009

I couldn’t let today slip away without thinking about the momentous landing on the moon exactly 40 years ago today. It is one of the events that will stick in my mind all my life just like the assassination of President Kennedy and the experience of being a child during the Cuban missile crisis. On the day of the moon landing I was finishing building a small transistor radio from a kit. It was one of those electronics kits that existed at the time with a collection of resistors, capacitors, a few diodes and transistors and various other components which could be assembled together (without soldering) to make various electronic circuits. I had just finished putting it together and tuned to the BBC and heard the live commentary of the decent of the lunar module to land on the moon.

Like many young people at that time, I had expected that we would go on to explore the solar system and that space travel would become routine. Well, in a sense we have with unmanned missions, but manned space flight has not gone far. It seems even more incredible when one visits the space museum at Huntsville, Alabama, for example, and looks at how primitive (but robust) so much of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft were.

I’ve been privileged to meet engineers who worked on the Saturn rocket and on other aspects of the US space programme and I really admire what they did, and the fact it was done with enthusiasm and very hard, concentrated work without the convenience or distractions of modern computers and Powerpoint presentations.

Hard drive dies?

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

Yesterday evening became a somewhat fraught time due to what I believe was a failure of a hard drive. I have a complex configuration of computers at home with a small home built linux box that used to be used as a dhcp server, NTP server, router, firewall, mail server and web proxy as well as a few other server functions. Recently due to replacement of my previous ADSL modem / router, I’d retired the linux box from its firewall and routing duties but was still using it as a dhcp server, NTP server, mail server and web proxy. I’m currently away from home, but noticed yesterday that my mail hadn’t been forwarded from some time in the afternoon and that I couldn’t remotely log in to the linux box. When my partner video chatted with me she said that there was a noise coming from the linux box. This really could only be the hard drive as it is a fanless case.

This then led to a fraught hour with me remotely changing settings on the ADSL modem / router for it to take over the dhcp functions and changing settings on the iMac that my partner was using as well as updating settings on an Airport Express. The “Back to my Mac” screen sharing facilities came in to their own. While forcing one to be careful and slow, it did mean that I could make changes to settings on the iMac. I’d also set up some very controlled access to the ADSL modem / router so that I could administer that. It is only when one faces this sort of challenge that one realises how many functions are interrelated. I have a lot of respect for people who do this with large numbers of computers and large networks for a living.

I suspect over the next couple of weeks I’ll find various settings that are now incorrect, or find some software looking for a machine that is not functioning. Fortunately almost all of the data on the linux box was backed up in various locations (although not as well backed up as my laptop and other machines).

The use of this linux box with its various functions was very much as a result of me wanting to understand as much as I could about e-mail, routing, firewalls, proxy web servers and security. It has certainly served that purpose well.

Grumpy old man

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

I realise that I’m becoming progressively more of a grumpy old man. So much of what is supposed to make life easier seems somehow to conspire and make life more difficult. I’ve spent a large part of day preparing material for my taxes. For reasons that I’m not going to go into, I’m using a large firm of accountants that my employer pays for. I now find that I’ve spent several hours typing into web pages far more information that I ever filled into a tax return when I was doing it myself. Furthermore, because it is a web application it insists on certain boxes being filled, and I’m finding myself getting tired of typing “Not known”! It just seems that things that are supposed to make life easier actually make things more difficult.

WordPress iPhone/iPod Touch App

Friday, July 17th, 2009

The app that I have used for this and the previous two posts seems pretty useful for the occasional blog post when one doesn’t wish to use the computer or when one is travelling. It also allows the offline writing of posts.

Photo test from iPod

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

Not sure where this photo was taken. Just used as a test.

Test of post from iPod Touch

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

This is a test of blogging via the iPod Touch app.

Another Photo Test

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

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This is Beningborough Hall.

Test of Photo Posting

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

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This is a view taken from the ridge up near Mam Tor in the Peak District in the UK. This was taken on a holiday a couple of years ago and is a test to see how photographs show up in this blog.