Tag Archives: computers

The British Government Should be Sorry

Pax Arcana

alan_turingNot since the Royal Academy of Sciences callously rejected my paper titled “Seven Hilarious Things I Saw on the Internet Yesterday” have I been so furious with the British government.

Last week I read a terrific book by Simon Singh called The Code Book, which details the history of cryptography from ancient times through the modern (at least up til 1999, when he wrote the book) computer era. A large part of the book concerns Allied efforts to crack the codes created by the Nazi Enigma machines during World War II. I’ll spare you the details, but basically Enigma machines were like fancy typewriters that used complicated internal wiring and settings to obscure the messages that were sent. Because the machines could be reconfigured in a host of ways, Enigma operators could choose from literally billions of different ciphers each time they sent a message.

Cracking the Enigmas required brilliance on a massive scale. Designing a mechanical electronic machine to automate the process of decrypting millions of words of Nazi radio messages was an accomplishment that was nearly unthinkable — until Alan Turing, a shy young British mathematics professor, did exactly that. Not only did Turing’s work lead directly to the invention of the electronic computer, but it also may have been the singular intelligence achievement of the 20th century.

Good thing he didn’t tell the army he was gay.

Or, as his intelligence colleague Jack Good put it:

“Fortunately the authorities did not know Turing was a homosexual. Otherwise we might have lost the war.”

Of course Turing’s luck didn’t last. In 1952 he was arrested for lewd indecency after accidentally admitting to the police that he’d been having sex with another man while his house was being robbed downstairs. Turing was allowed to avoid jail time by agreeing to take a cocktail of drugs aimed at reducing his sex drive. The chemical castration worked like a charm — he killed himself in 1954 at the age of 41.

Anyway, a group of British scientists has organized a petition calling on the government to apologize for its role in ruining the life of one of its shining lights. Obviously he’s dead now, so it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. But still, British people apologize for everything — I once stabbed a British guy and he apologized for getting blood on my knife. The least they could do is say they’re sorry. Only they shouldn’t use the phrase “No hard feelings,” since that’s kind of what they did the first time.

Campaign to win official apology for Alan Turing [Manchester Evening News]

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I am risking my life for this post

Pax Arcana

laptopFor nearly three years, I labored under the false notion that the most dangerous thing in my workplace was Father Scott’s beard — in which he stores fishing equipment and, if my instincts are correct, a small handful of month-old Pringles.

But as it turns out, the most dangerous thing in my workplace is this very machine upon which I type (Note — only because I can’t get my steampunk typewriter online yet).  According to Time magazine, computer-related injuries are worse than herpes and much less fun to contract:

Accidents like these happen more often than you think. According to a study published in the July issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine — the first to tally acute computer-caused injuries like cuts and bruises — 9,300 Americans suffer such mishaps each year. Based on data from some 100 hospital emergency rooms across the country from 1994 to 2006, the study found that 78,703 people sustained injuries ranging from scrapes and bruises to contusions and torn muscles during the 13-year study period.

In part, the high rate of injury reflects the sheer increase in household computer ownership, which jumped 309% over the same period. But computer exposure and injuries hardly rose in lockstep: injuries far outpaced ownership, growing 732% from 1994 to 2006.

“I found that to be really astounding,” says study co-author Lara McKenzie, assistant professor of pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Center for Injury Research and Policy. “We never see increases like that, and we look at consumer products all the time.”

It would be one thing if these reported injuries were bumps and bruises from tripping over power cords or dropping laptops on our feet, but the truth is much more, um, stabby?

In all age groups, the most frequently diagnosed injury was laceration, making up 39% of cases.

I’ve had a lot of computers in my life, and I’ve hated almost all of them (RIP THINKPAD T-40!! YOU STILL MY DAWG!!). But despite my best efforts to provoke them, I can honestly say I’ve never had a computer just jump up and cut me like that. It’s probably because they know I don’t play. I WILL DROWN YOU IN A BATHTUB, YOU PIECE OF SHIT.

0011000 1001010001011 000111111000000 0111001110 I’m sorry I don’t 011110 0111001110 know what’s happening to my screen 001110111101001 110100 000110 looks funny right now 0111011 00111 010011110 110101 1110000 110 1110011 011111 0001110 1110110


Another Computer Hazard: Dropping One on Your Foot [Time]

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The computers want to play Jeopardy

Pax Arcana

alex_trebekAs if Jeopardy needed even more socially awkward contestants, IBM says it is building a computer that will be able to compete with humans on the famous trivia game show.

You may remember that a previous IBM effort resulted in a machine that beat chess masters at their own game. Apparently, Jeopardy is harder than chess for computers:

But chess is a game of limits, with pieces that have clearly defined powers. “Jeopardy!” requires a program with the suppleness to weigh an almost infinite range of relationships and to make subtle comparisons and interpretations. The software must interact with humans on their own terms, and fast.

Indeed, the creators of the system — which the company refers to as Watson, after the I.B.M. founder, Thomas J. Watson Sr. — said they were not yet confident their system would be able to compete successfully on the show, on which human champions typically provide correct responses 85 percent of the time.

I think the IBM machine will lose because there’s no way a computer designed to interact with normal humans will be able to handle Alex Trebek without popping wires and sizzling like in a 1980s movie. Unless they can hard code a douchey condescension dissipator into the BIOS layer, of course. I don’t know. I hate technology.

Computer Program to Take On ‘Jeopardy!’ [NYT]

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Mind reading robot doesn’t know what to think

Pax Arcana

A few years ago, Honda introduced a small humanoid robot called Asimo that could do things like walk, wave, and savagely attack people by falling down the stairs at them.

The latest addition to the Asimo family is even more dangerous.

According to the Guardian (UK), the latest Asimo can read your mind — literally:

To control the robot, the person wearing the helmet only had to think about making the movement. Its inventors hope that one day the mind-control technology will allow people to do things like turn air conditioning on or off and open their car boot without putting their shopping down.

The helmet is the first “brain-machine interface” to combine two different techniques for picking up activity in the brain. Sensors in the helmet detect electrical signals through the scalp in the same way as a standard EEG (electroencephalogram). The scientists combined this with another technique called near-infrared spectroscopy, which can be used to monitor changes in blood flow in the brain.


Naturally, scientists are pushing the “we-help-disabled-people” angle in order to hide their real agenda — to mass produce an army of mind reading robots that will enslave us under their cold, brushed-metal thumbs.

But fear not, Paxites. My team of computational behavior theorists is well on its way to devising appropriate defensive maneuvers should you be attacked by a mind reading robot. Idea #1 — Force yourself to think about all the delicious motor oil stacked behind the robot. Then, when it turns around, you push it down the fucking stairs.

Honda unveils helmet that lets wearer control a robot by thought alone [Guardian]


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Friday Random 10: It’s a loaner edition

Pax Arcana

Since Father Scott already apprised you of the situation I’m calling “a serious and unavoidable technological system failure” rather than “I forgot my laptop at home when I came in to work this morning,” I’ll skip over the basics.

I am now typing on some sort of retrofitted Soviet telegraph machine that was loaned to me by the IT department. The monitor is an Etch-a-Sketch. The keyboard is made of Scrabble tiles affixed to golf tees. The mouse is an actual mouse.

Anyway, let’s do a Friday Random 10, shall we?

The Songs:

The Four of Us are Dying — Nine Inch Nails
Blackberry Stone — Laura Marling
Palmcorder Yajna — The Mountain Goats
Search and Destroy — Iggy Pop and the Stooges
Paris 2004 — Peter, Bjorn and John
Turn on the Sun Again — The Real Tuesday Weld
I Never Want To Go Home — The Whigs
Take the Fifth — Spoon
Keep the Car Running — Arcade Fire
No Surprises — Radiohead

Bonus Video:

Dancing Choose — TV on the Radio (Live on Letterman)

Incidentally, TV on the Radio’s new album is awesome.

The Rules: The Friday Random 10 is exactly that — random. We open up our iTunes, set the thing on shuffle, and listen to 10 songs. We are not permitted to skip any out of embarrassment or fear of redundancy. Commenters are encouraged to post their own.


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Remembering Y2K

Wired commemorates New Year’s Eve with this look back at the Y2K panic of the late 1990s.

The distant future. The distant future. The year 2000. The year 2000.

Here’s a recap for those too young to remember Y2K, like Father Scott and new superstar commenter Fallen Angel, who were both probably too wrapped up in Pokemon and Aaron Carter to notice what was going on:

The problem, as some saw it, was that older computers still being used for critical functions might break down when the date switched from 99 to 00, since the numeric progression convention, programmed to store data using only the last two digits of any given year, wouldn’t recognize the logic of a century change.

As far as these computers were concerned, it would be 1900, not 2000. How much data might be lost as the result of this 100-year miscalculation was the great, unanswered question.

What started as a simple concern over business logic quickly escalated into full-blown panic once the national TV media got hold of the story. Suddenly we were in danger of falling airplanes and exploding dirt devils. No doubt about it, we were told, the lights will go out at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999 and all of humanity will be shipped back to its hunter/gatherer roots.

None of that happened, of course. Most large companies and federal agencies were able to upgrade their critical applications in plenty of time, and computers in smaller businesses (and airplanes) just kept humming along.

The computers, it turns out, were smarter than we thought they were. Whether that’s a good thing remains to be seen.

Dec. 31, 1999: Horror or Hype? Y2K Arrives and the World Trembles [Wired]


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