More coincidences

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Mars, of course. Courtesy of Nasa/JPL

RAIN! My readers in other parts of Australia or the world wouldn’t understand, but it’s been raining! I love it. We don’t get much rain and now it’s back. Some steady light rain but many heavy showers, only lasting a few minutes, but enough to start soaking the ground, spread over days. If you want to see climate change, come to WA. The bush is looking parched, dry. Australian bush is always dry looking, but it’s noticeably dryer now. Rain like this is a Dogsend.

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Bloody coincidences. I think I’m psychic. I get premonitions.

About five years ago a friend of mine used my video camcorder and editing computer to make a short promo piece called Get Up, Stand Up. It had a rather catchy tune. For some reason it popped (I nearly wrote pooped) into my head yesterday morning.

I was cleaning out some old backups yesterday afternoon and guess what: yes, Get Up, Stand Up was one of the items! I hadn’t thought of it for years. Precognition rather than premonition.

I was watching an SBS program about the development of the machine gun. One of the pioneers was Hiram Maxim, and his office was in Hatton Garden, London, around 1910. So what happens? The robbers do their business in Hatton Garden over Easter.

I happened to be flicking channels on TV yesterday and tried Channel 9 showing Casablanca. At the moment I switched to it, Ingrid Bergman said, “Play it, Sam. Play it for me.” Sam says, “Play what?” Ingrid says, “You know. Play it Sam.” And so on. Yes it’s true, she never said “Play it again, Sam.” But what a coincidence that I switched to it just at that famous moment.

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I got two emails yesterday. The first was from a transport company telling me there’s a shipment coming from OCZ in Taiwan. So they’ve received my faulty Solid State Drive and either they’re sending a replacement, or they’re sending my dud one back saying, “No deal, sport.” Joking.

Then a little later I got one from Hattons in the UK saying they’ve refunded my purchase price for the faulty locomotive I mailed back to them on the Thursday before Easter. So the mail took just a week.

I’m glad I’m getting satisfaction, but these two faulty products cost me $52.75 and $18.20 respectively in postage! Bloody hell. Not happy. Not happy about all the faulty products I’m experiencing, e.g. a succession of coffee machines. And a cheap Ozito line trimmer that won’t line feed. Grrr! Every time it runs out of line, I have to take the head apart and try to refeed it. Serves me right for buying $99 junk.

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I’ve read two great books recently. The first was Travelling to Infinity by Mary Hawking, the wife of the physicist. I highly recommend it. I’ve mentioned it before, but I keep thinking about it. One aspect is, what a rich environment is Cambridge in England, or any of the university towns and cities. If you have any wish at all to engage in academia or any of the arts, you are awash with opportunities.

Molecular plaid

Visualisation of a computer CPU

The other book, which I’m nearly finished, is The Enigma, the story of Alan Turing, the WW2 code breaker. That’s all I knew of him before I read this book but I realise now he was more than that. First, he was Dr Turing. He had a PhD in Mathematics from Cambridge. He doesn’t get much credit for that. He was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. That’s a big deal.

He did much more than break codes, though. He wrote the book, literally, in about 1938, on the theoretical first computing machine. The Enigma was a German code machine that was invented in the 1920s and was commercially available. I always assumed that there were only two, one in Germany and one in Britain, but no, they were all over the place. There was one in every German ship or HQ. I never knew how Britain got theirs. I assumed they copied and built one during the war. No, they had already bought one before the war. The Germans were pretty cocky (read arrogant) and thought their encoding would be unbreakable, but Turing and a few others were ahead of them and figured out all the tricks.

This was Bletchley Park, a place with thousands of staff who never fully knew what they were doing, but who received all the coded German messages, punched them onto paper tape, fed them to the Enigma machine and decoded and translated the messages. There was another machine, initiated by Polish intelligence before the war but carried on by the British, called the Bombe. Cute. And in typical British style, Turing also invented a voice encryption device for radio communications, and called it the Delilah. Even cuter.

Amazingly, the senior British military refused to take the results seriously. They believed they could win the war by traditional military tactics and refused to take any notice of these decoded German communications. The Navy were the worst. Almost total denial, resulting in the loss of hundreds of ships and men because they wouldn’t accept the intelligence. All those stereotypes of Colonel Blimps and stupid Generals and vain Admirals are true. Tens of thousands of men died, including thousands of Aussies, as a result of these few arrogant fools. The British military command in India are singled out as totally blind, refusing to accept what they were being told.

But the Enigma was a mechanical device. Once they had got theirs working, Turing moved on to other things, which meant an electronic computer, using the primitive valve electronics of the time. He taught himself how to design electronic circuits and started on the first actual computer, using an input device, data storage, what we’d now call accumulators and arithmetic and logics units (ALUs), a means of output (teleprinters), but most importantly, written programming, including the use of subroutines. This all seems so simple now, but it all came out of his head.

I highly recommend the book, but it’s about 750 pp thick, in small print, and the author is a Cambridge mathematician himself. He doesn’t spare us the details. If the idea of reading about Hilbert spaces, matrices, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Zeta Functions and similar puts you off, you probably wouldn’t get too far in.

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Having been taught a semester on radar by a British bloke called Jim Whitelegg in about 1969, I can grasp what Turing was doing in the valve technology of the day very well. Jim Whitelegg was actually involved in the development of radar during WW2, so he wasn’t far removed from that technology. I actually learnt the “Radar Equation”, although I never used it outside those Perth Tech classrooms. It was all valves, of course.

Those early British and US computers used between 10,000 and 28,000 valves! Most of them did the same thing, it was just that you had to have a valve per bit, and you were operating on thousands of bits. The first British valve computer cost around 10,000 pounds and operated at about 1MHz. These days, putting a billion transistors on a silicon slice costing about $150 and operating at 4,000 MHz is no big deal.

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Some nice photos:

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Mars, of course. © NASA/JPL

Barque Endeavour July88-12

Endeavour © P.J. Croft 1988

More coming…

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