eXtensions - Thursday 5 March 2020


Cassandra - Thursday Diversion: Historical Perspectives on Computers, Networks, Police Systems, and Bell Labs

By Graham K. Rogers


The world problems with COVID-19 are moving some to cancel important conferences and sporting events. A lot of the technology we use today has its roots in earlier systems and some hard research done by great minds, long since dead. Some of us used older technology and it has shaped the way we work.

A number of meetings and conferences are being cancelled or postponed, with both Apple and Netflix pulling out of South by South-west. It is strongly expected that Apple's WWDC which normally runs in June, will not be run as a conference per se. Thousands of people from all over the world normally come to the event and Apple is already restricting employee travel. Other arrangements will have to be made.

Presentations are easy and are already available online, but it is the live labs, where developers interact directly with the specific experts regarding the technology, that will have to be rethought. Live sessions may have to be run online, but for those in areas where links are poor, this may cause problems.

Meetings and Apple

Despite many events being cancelled, this year's Photography Show at the NEC in Birmingham is still running (14-17 March), according to Ilford. I would want to avoid such a large gathering of people, but from what I am hearing from the U.K. few think Covid-19 is really going to be a serious threat. A bit like reassurances about the golden future after Brexit I guess.

I occasionally have a problem when the Internet signal at my home drops and for perhaps a minute I am without any signal. Sometimes this is longer. This week I had a break off perhaps five minutes, so I switched to DTAC and used the Personal Hotspot. The Internet came back and I resumed using Wi-Fi. Then it went off again. When it got to 35 minutes I decided I had had enough enough. I tried the True number I have for engineers, but that no longer works. I looked at the website and saw the 1242 number and tried that.

Unfortunately, despite the number of non-Thai customers that True has, there is no ability for the automatic response system to work in English. Many other companies manage this without much fuss. With a little bit of time and some guesswork I finally managed to speak to a service assistant, but my Thai was not quite good enough and nor was her English. She put me in touch with an English-speaking assistant and I reported the problem.

The new assistant checked my connection and told me that there had actually been five signal cuts, so I had better speak to an engineer. My initial suggested time of 9 a.m. was not possible so I tried 2 p.m.. A message this morning showed me that the engineer would arrive between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m so I had to rush through tasks I had.

There was a phone call at 12:30 from a Thai speaking engineer. Later an English-speaking service assistant phoned and told me the engineer would be coming at about 1:30, but the problem seems to be that my package of 80 MB upload and 30 MB download was too good for the system installed at the condo, which has a maximum of 50 MB download speed. This is a hardware weakness. The condo is not new and the cables from the shared system cannot handle 80 MB although I see this quite frequently.

Network speeds Network speeds Network speeds Network speeds

Pre and Post signal adjustments - 5 March 2020

They have reduced my speed and maybe, maybe, this will reduce the signal losses. Confidence is not high. The engineer will contact me again to see how the limited setup is working for me, although in the couple of hours since the change, there were three drops of about a minute each

I do not buy too many new apps these days. The market has been saturated for a long time now and there is rarely anything, either on iOS (and Android) or Mac that really moves me, although when something comes my way, I will at least have a look at the specs and maybe download a test version. One of the applications I have tried on the Mac is ON1, and this is a good example of photo-editing software, but its cataloguing capabilities do not suit me.

ON1 logo This week, there has been an advanced notice, including a video of a mobile camera app from ON1 for iOS and Android that is to be released later this year. It may have some of the features of apps like the Italian, DSLR Camera, that was updated this week, and Halide among others.

There was an interesting Tweet from Benjamin Mayo this week which linked to the famous slide set that Samsung produced for its internal review of the iPhone ten years ago. A couple of slides are shown in the thread and I was reminded of some of the skeuomorphic effects that are no longer used: bring back the fun was mentioned a couple of times and that was also one of the points that Samsung's slides were making. Some may remember when skeuomorphism was banned from Apple.

I was asked to edit a short movie commentary that has been made to explain expanded transportation systems in an area just outside Bangkok. It just did not read right to me, and when read out by a local I can hear errors in timing that I mentioned in notes after my first look of the updated version. I read an interesting comment on the making of the original Star Wars, when Harrison Ford (not known for shyness) apparently once told George Lucas on set, "George! You can type this shit, but you sure can't say it! Move your mouth when you're typing!"

If you read Shakespeare it may be hard to understand, but if you act the words just flow. When watching movies or television I often find myself saying to myself, no one would ever say that. Word choice is a particular problem. Who, for example, ever says, "a plethora of? . . ." There are many more. Online writing also suffers from this and the next item (good in its content) has in its opening sentence, "a bevy of."

Sometimes I find the batteries on my devices lower than I expected but a quick think back reminds me that, for example, I had been watching lots of videos: probably through Twitter links. There are other culprits and N. F. Mendoza (TechRepublic) reports on a bevy of apps (sic) with Google, Facebook, and WhatsApp at the top (or bottom, depending on how you look at these things). Although the article seems to focus on Android - this is implied - there may be parallels with iOS and I note that apps from Google and Facebook are said to be among the worst for power use.

Bell Labs Story
The Idea Factory - The Bell Labs Story

One of my favorite reads from the last few years is the Bell Labs Story. The original telephone company in the USA - like its counterpart in the U.K. which helped develop Turing's Colossus analytical computer - was keen to carry out research on all manner of things related to telephone systems and beyond. A great example is the 1930s examination of the optimum distance between telegraph poles. Bell Labs is more famous for its work on the transistor, patented in 1947, but it is interesting too that around the same time they were carrying out research into telephone cells: the system used now which gives us the ability to use our mobile phones seamlessly as we travel between antenna transmission areas (the cells).

Rebuilding Colossus at Bletchley Park - It is all telephone parts

Of course Bell Labs did a whole lot more but seemed to disappear after the court-ordered breakup of Ma Bell. It ended up as part of the French Alcatel group before being acquired by Nokia. They have just announced an innovation competition with some big prizes, although the real prize is commercial backing that follows such a win. It is an international contest, and there will be some serious entrants, with a previous winner coming from Berkeley with "A Classical Spin on Quantum Computing" It is coincidence I am sure but this week I saw information about a new spin on quantum computing from Honeywell. This uses a technology, called ion traps, which hold ions - the computer's qubits - in place with electromagnetic fields.

The British arm of Honeywell developed the command and control computer system for Bedfordshire Police when I was there in the late 1970s. It was supposed to enable efficient deployment of resources. As incidents were reported they were entered into the computer and the nearest unit sent if necessary. Unfortunately (as well as technical problems), it failed to take account of the humans involved: message takers, police on the street, and the general public.

To cut costs there was no automatic location system so it relied on officers entering this information manually. Some would fail to do this so that they could do their own little tasks, the geographical areas were too large in some cases, so for example location X could be several miles wide, and you don't want to lean down and enter a new location when chasing someone at 100mph. Experience talking here.

When things became busy, like every Friday or Saturday night, when the local football team had a home game, or in the days of riots in 1981, the number of calls coming in overwhelmed the operators in the stations and at police headquarters, who resorted to paper and pen to write down information. They used brain power and experience to direct resources; or used the time-honoured, "any unit in the vicinity of. . . " making the computer system redundant and, more important, untrusted in the eyes of management and the officers on the street. This was an early lesson for me in how the mind of the computer engineer might not understand the realities of how life on the street is not binary and cannot be easily organized into neat columns for a database.

In the late 1970s there were no neural network systems (yes, no, maybe, perhaps) and no AI, which is now making great strides. Several of my Engineering students have come up with AI projects, for example in sorting through MRI and CAT scans; while one I am currently working with (his writing) is using AI to help identify cancerous tumors.

Microsoft is working on a project that uses AI in the classroom, although I am not wholly convinced: I usually have to think on my feet and my class will change instantly as a result of a student question or comment. Nonetheless, there are some areas this may work in and it is good that this is being developed.

One of the reasons I took to working on PCs (before my Mac days) was that in 1985 when I first taught using PCs on the Illinois State University writing program, there was so much that could not be done. Those Zenith brand devices had no hard disks, so we learned to boot up with a twin-floppy drive system: MSDOS in one drive, then the application disk (usually Wordstar) with a data disk in the second drive. Although we had several sessions learning how to use the computers, when the students came to using them, after the initial Wow factor had worn off, they ignored the machines and worked. Older people often failed to do that and asked so many questions.

When I came to Thailand, I initially bought a computer with the same 2-disk setup, but soon bought my first hard disk at one of the frequent shows that were run then. The 386 PC had a 20MB hard disk. That was, I reasoned, all I would ever need. There is a lesson there of course. I started writing for the Bangkok Post at about the same time I arrived in Bangkok (my first 2 years were in the south), but it was all on the edge: to make anything work, users had to do it themselves, whether it were hardware fixes or software solutions; and that is how I started the writing.

A real iMac

A while later that PC broke and I moved to Mac as someone at work had a used Quadra for sale. Even though this was running a relatively sophisticated System 7, there was still a need for the user to roll up the sleeves and find workaround solutions. The arrival of OS X changed everything and I took to this quickly. There were some G4 Macs at work for a project I had planned, and I also bought my own iMac, which is still in my possession.

Although OS X 10.1 (and subsequent versions) was a step up, there were still ways in which users could personalize the way each device worked, particularly if they were not afraid to play with the Unix on which OS X was built. In early days it was an easy way to make repairs too with the Single-user startup mode; but this all still works.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the use of the command to turn back on the startup chime. This has to be done in an Admin account: entering the SUDO command needs the user to be on the SUDO list which means Admin as there is no root user on macOS.

sudo nvram StartupMute=%00

at the prompt (sudo allows root privileges for a single action - it used to allow root access for several minutes).

In my last column I also mentioned the ways users can add or change key commands by using the System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts panel, creating a totally personal way of working. I tend to stick to what Apple gives me, adapting where I need and adding when the key command would make it more efficient. There are so many ways in which users can do damage, and the motorcycle mantra - if it ain't broke, don't fix it - works well here.

Some of the hints and tips are often recycled: every few years there are new users who may not know how flexible their Macs can be; and once in a while I see a suggestion that is worth repeating, like the way to merge folders that was outlined by Sandy Writtenhouse (iDownloadBlog) this week. This site is well worth bookmarking or following (on RSS for example) as there is always useful information being put out.

Notes from the lock screen
Notes opened from the lock screen

Another super little hint, this time from Paul Horowitz on OS X Daily (a site also well worth following) concerns notes on a locked iPad. Normally when I pick up the iPad Pro it opens right away with FaceID, but wearing a mask as one sometimes does these days may not allow unlocking. No matter, tap the screen with the Apple Pencil and the user is offered a Notes mode. Sketch away. Take notes. It may be necessary to enter the password manually next time it is used.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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