Category Archives: Technology

Bezos’ Law

The future of cloud computing is the availability of more computing power at a much lower cost; Moore’s law thus gives way to Bezos’ law:

Over the history of cloud, a unit of computing power price is reduced by 50% approximately every three years.

 
The cost of cloud computing should naturally track Moore’s law (as the cost of computing is related to the cost of hardware); however, the cost of utilities such as electricity clearly do not follow the same demand curve. Nevertheless, with Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, Google Compute Engine and Microsoft Azure increasingly competitive on pricing, cloud, as opposed to building or maintaining a data centre, would appear to be a much better economic delivery approach for many companies.

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The undersea cables wiring the Earth

US telecoms research firm TeleGeography has published its annual Submarine Cable Map, giving an excellent overview of international connectivity. Over 99% of international communications are delivered by undersea cables; while satellites are used for broadcasting, and are useful for rural communities and very remote places, satellite capacity is limited and expensive.

As you can see below, there is significant connectivity between the major hubs of the world, for both resilience and performance: different paths are used to avoid undersea fault zones, to land in different countries and to avoid certain countries. We have wired the ends of the Earth, almost; what’s left are generally remote island communities. In Europe, the US and Asia, people don’t have to think about what happens if the Internet goes down and they can’t send an important email.

europe-close-submarine-cable-map-2014

Undersea cables are actually more vulnerable than you might think; during the 2011 tsunami in Japan about half of their cables had outages, but the operators were able to reroute capacity to other routes. Last spring, there was damage in Mediterranean cables that linked East Africa to Europe, but it has been many years since there was a complete blackout.

Looking at previous versions of the map (see 2013 and 2012), you can see the developments: in the past year, numerous cables were built to the east coast of Africa, where it was previously all satellite; a new cable linking the US with Mexico and other Latin American countries should be ready this year; another connecting India and Malaysia; with one recently announced connecting the UK and Japan set for the first quarter of 2016.

From a UK backbone perspective, take a look at JANET (which celebrates its 30th birthday today!) and the JANET6 network infrastructure, as well as how it connects into G√ČANT, the pan-European research and education network.

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2014 IET South Wales Annual Lecture

On Thursday 20th March I will be giving the 2014 IET South Wales Annual Lecture at Swansea University:

Computing: Enabling a Digital Wales

Digital technology (and thus computation) is an indispensable and crucial component of our lives, society and environment. In a world increasingly dominated by technology, we now need to be more than just digitally literate. Across science and engineering, computing has moved on from assisting researchers in doing science, to transforming both how science is done and what science is done. In the context of (Welsh and UK) Government science, technology and innovation policy, computer scientists (of all flavours) have a significant role to play. Tom will ground this hypothesis by describing his research interests at the hardware/software interface, his broader work in education and science policy, and then finishing by presenting a vision for a “Digital Wales” underpinned by science and technology innovation.

 
This talk is free, with registration online.

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Eye of the Tiger

This old 24-pin dot matrix printer has been converted into a MIDI compatible sound generator using an ATmega8 and a Xilinx FPGA. Up to 21 notes can be played simultaneously (16 MIDI channels with individual volume and pitch). The original printing frequency was approximately 1kHz with a pulse width of 300μs — pins hit the paper at a maximum of 1000 times per second during printing. The MIDI electronics increases this from a few Hz up to 2kHz. When the pulse width is reduced the sound gets quieter because the pin hits the paper with less force; see the full technical details.

(also see what can be done by manipulating floppy disk drives, especially for Super Mario)

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HTTPS Everywhere

https-everywhere

HTTPS Everywhere is a Firefox, Chrome and Opera extension that encrypts your communications with many major websites, making your browsing more secure.

Encrypt the web: Install HTTPS Everywhere today.

(HTTPS Everywhere is a collaboration between The Tor Project and the Electronic Frontier Foundation; information about how to access the project’s Git repository and get involved in development is here)

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Interview for ITV Wales on effects of computer games

(N.B. due to the privacy settings for this Vimeo clip, you will have to view the video on their website)

Yesterday I was interviewed on Newsweek Wales, ITV Wales’ weekly news summary programme, on the perceived dangers of children playing computer games. This was in response to an ITV Wales News story from a few days before, in which a headteacher from a primary school near Caerphilly had felt he had identified a possible link between violent video games and aggressive behaviour; this story was further contextualised by a nine year old boy from Neath who had written to Prime Minister about his concerns over the availability of age-appropriate computer games.

This rather anecdotal declaration of a causal link between playing computer games (an activity enjoyed by the majority of the population) and increased aggression and violence is frustrating; furthermore, this type of story appears to pop every so often, but is not backed by the evidence base: see here and here, with summaries here and here. As I mentioned in the interview, the demographics of people who play computer games can be surprising, especially average age (over 30) and the gender split (55% male/45% female). While I take the point from the Neath pupil about the availability (and attraction) of age-appropriate computer games, it is interesting to list the top five best-selling computer games of all time (across all platforms):

Ranking Title Release Year Systems Copies Sold
1. Wii Sports 2006 Wii 82 million
2. Super Mario Bros. 1985 NES 40 million
3. Minecraft 2009 Various 36 million
4. Mario Kart Wii 2008 Wii 35 million
5. Tetris 2008 GameBoy/GameBoy Color 35 million

 
In summary: let’s stick to the evidence and not confuse societal or educational issues as technology problems. Minecraft is a great example of how powerful computer games can be: not only is it incredibly popular, it is also a great resource for education, developing digital literacies, communication skills and basic programming (aside: Ordnance Survey recently released a 22 billion block Minecraft map of the UK as an open data resource).

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Cunk on Computing

Philomena Cunk finds out about the history of computing in this week’s Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe (SE02E04):

(more seriously: you might recognise the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park; also worth reading about Konrad Zuse and the Z3)

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What Superman III teaches us about programming

I’ve always had a soft spot for Superman III (1983), the third film in the original franchise starring Christopher Reeve as Superman. While it’s generally regarded as being below the standard of the first two films, it has some great moments e.g. the scene where evil Superman fights Clark Kent.

In Superman III, Richard Pryor plays Gus Gorman, a man with no known computing skills whatsoever, who — when his social security is stopped — turns to programming out of desperation.

become_a_programmer

After completing a programming course (presumably in BASIC or COBOL), Gus soon lands a job at Webscoe Industries, unaware that he’s working for Evil Robert Vaughn. He stays back after work one night, to hack into the work computers and award himself a few extra expenses. But what possible lines of programming genius will it require? What would you need to type in to override all the ruthless security of the Webscoe Payroll Division?

give_me_all_the_money

Err…it’s a good job he did that course.

After receiving a cheque for $85,789.90 and turning up to work in a new Ferrari, it all goes rather downhill: Evil Robert Vaughn coerces him into hacking the Vulcan weather satellite, as well as manipulating the global financial system, damaging the world’s oil supplies by moving every tanker into roughly the same place and replicating kryptonite by tracking down unknown elements in outer space. With the programming educational element of the film done by this point, Gus proposes building a “supercomputer”, eventually leading to the creation of a Robocop prototype.

Read the full Den of Geek analysis of Superman III‘s contribution to the teaching of programming; and remember: all of this computer mayhem came from a man who answered an advert on the back of a book of matches.

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Dispatchwork: repairing dull and grey cities with Plastic Construction Bricks

This is part of the manifesto of the delightful Dispatchwork project, conceived by artist Jan Vormann in Belgium in 2010:


I don’t enjoy living in dull and grey cities. Do you? Have you noticed that toys for kids are generally very shiny and colorful? I wonder why that is, given that they are to be brought up to live in mostly dull and gray cities as adults. Since I lived in many of such cities, I am seeking to improve the appearance of public spaces in different ways, in terms of what I consider improvement. Dispatchwork aims to seal fissures in broken walls worldwide, completing the material compilation in urban constructing and adding color to the urban greyscales, by inserting a very basic construction-material: Plastic Construction Bricks (PCBs).

 
It has since spread worldwide: here’s an example in Piccadilly Circus in London:

london1

london2

london3

See more examples on the project website.

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FuckIt.py: The Python Error Steamroller

Having problems with your Python code? Try FuckIt.py by ajalt:

FuckIt.py uses state-of-the-art technology to make sure your Python code runs whether it has any right to or not. Some code has an error? Fuck it.

FuckIt.py uses a combination of dynamic compilation, Abstract Syntax Tree rewriting, live call stack modification and love to get rid of all those pesky errors that makes programming so hard. All functionality is provided through the fuckit module: add import fuckit to the top of your script, then you can use fuckit in a number of ways e.g. as a replacement for import when a module has errors — just change import some_shitty_module to fuckit('some_shitty_module'):

import fuckit
#import some_shitty_module
fuckit('some_shitty_module')
some_shitty_module.some_function()

Still getting errors? Chain fuckit calls. This module is like violence: if it doesn’t work, you just need more of it:

from fuckit import fuckit
fuckit(fuckit('some_shitty_module'))
# This is definitely going to run now.
some_shitty_module.some_function()

You can also use fuckit as a decorator and a context manager; plus check out its extremely permissive public license.

(also see: FuckItJS, the Javascript Error Steamroller)

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