Category Archives: Computing

Unblocked?

One of the great benefits of the internet, of course, is its ability to give you a smug sense of satisfaction when you find others who agree with your point of view. This can be further enhanced after a short period if you feel that historical events have actually proved you were right all along.

So powerful is this effect that I’ve just been to check whether the domain IToldYouSo.com was still available. But it wasn’t. “Well”, you’re probably saying, “I could have told you that…”

I can’t help wondering whether, if you added it up on a global scale, the tears shed in recent days over the collapse of the FTX crypto exchange have been balanced by all the small self-affirming boosts for those of us who always felt this cryptocurrency stuff was too good to be true, and are now experiencing emotions somewhere between Schadenfreude and “There but for the grace of God…”!

The key technology behind most cryptocurrencies is, of course, the blockchain: a distributed ledger consisting of entries that are like the laws of the Medes and Persians; once written, they cannot be changed. What’s more, this system doesn’t require you to trust Medes, Persians or anyone else to maintain it because this ledger is distributed over many tens of thousands of independent machines. It’s often described as a zero-trust system.

It’s particularly appealing to conspiracy theorists who distrust all big corporations and governments, and also to those who live in regimes that are genuinely untrustworthy, or where the rule of law is not well-established. Once your purchase, contract, will, marriage certificate, patent application or whatever is recorded on a blockchain, there’s theoretically nothing anybody can do to get rid of that record. I’m reading Nineteen Eighty-Four again at the moment, and one of the keys to The Party’s absolute power in that book is their ability to rewrite history at any time, and erase all evidence of having done so. Not so with blockchains!

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Especially if you ignore for now the fact that most implementations turned out to be phenomenally power-hungry to run. It is a clever technology, and quite apart from the ridiculous amounts of cash that have been converted to and from cryptocurrencies and similar gambles like NFTs, huge amounts have also been invested in startups that are building things using blockchain technologies.

But there’s a problem.

In its first 14 years, at least, despite vast amounts of interest and investment, it’s been very hard to identify more than a small handful of real use cases of the blockchain. (The Cambridge Centre for Carbon Credits is run by very smart friends of mine, and may well prove to be an example of a great application.)

But in general, yes, there are lots of things you can build using Distributed Ledger Technologies (to give the more formal generic term), and there are many systems that would probably be better if they were built that way, but it almost always turns out to be much easier just to use a database and trust somebody! If you don’t want to trust any individual organisation, then you can create an industry-wide standards body or something similar to run your database.

Sometimes you might use an irreversible ledger, but again, if you can just trust somebody to look after it, you can avoid all that nasty messing about with the complexity and environmental impact of the proof-of-work algorithm: the normal way of avoiding the need for trust.

All of the above is a very long introduction to Tim Bray’s interesting article about how Amazon’s AWS team, providers of the largest computing facilities in the world, basically came to the same conclusion about blockchains as I did, which made me feel smug.

History, of course, may tell a different story, but I’ll have edited this blog post by then, because it’s in a database.

Thanks to John Naughton and Charles Arthur, both of whom linked to Tim’s article.

Keep it secret! Keep it safe!

Some very smart friends of mine have created a rather neat device called EnCloak. It looks and acts just like a normal USB drive, but it can encrypt and decrypt files in cunning ways as you save and retrieve them.

“So what?”, you may say, “There are lots of encrypted storage devices on the market.”

Yes, but this one has some particularly smart attributes, most notably that the hardware just uses standard USB file storage operations, so you don’t need any software or drivers on the machine to make use of it. And if you drop it in the car park and somebody picks it up and plugs it in, they’ll just see a small standard flash drive and won’t even know there are also secret files on it without having the appropriate credentials, let alone be able to read them.

Need to take those super-secret exam questions to the publishing company without wanting to trust any intervening networks? Or keep a backup copy of the things you normally store in your password manager, which you could get at anywhere in future without access to that bit of software? This might be the thing for you.

There are lots of other ways to get encrypted data from place to place, so you may not need this. But hey, the printing company may not know about your GPG keys, and the examination board may not want to install your decryption software, and you know the Feds will get at anything you have in the cloud. If they don’t, Facebook will. Besides, gadgets are fun!

Anyway, they’ve been working on this for quite a while; and I saw an early prototype over two years ago, so I can vouch that it worked even back then. Now they’ve just launched a Kickstarter project to fund the initial production run, so you can now sign up for one — either for yourself, or to get your Christmas presents sorted out nice and early for your geeky friends!

Zooming in on the Micro Men

A couple of days ago, in my post about Sir Clive Sinclair, I mentioned the entertaining BBC drama “Micro Men“, which covered the exhilarating race between Sinclair, Acorn and others to corner the home computing market in the early 80s. Any Cambridge friends who are interested in computing and haven’t seen it should certainly take a look!

Those who know any of the people (or machines) concerned, or who enjoy watching the ‘Special features’ section of DVDs, may want to take it a bit further. I’ve discovered that, 10 years after the film came out, the Centre for Computing History got together Steve Furber, Hermann Hauser and Chris Curry for a viewing of the film, to get their take on how it recorded the events.

And also a revealing discussion which followed the film:

If, like me, you wondered why, for example, the Acorn Electron was not the commercial success it should have been, given its technical merits, this informal chat will tell you.

An epitaph for Sir Clive

Are there any stores that you like to go into, but rather hope that you won’t be spotted there by anybody you know, because it would be a bit embarrassing? One of these, for me, is Edinburgh Woollen Mills, which seems to have, as its target market, old-age pensioners with little sense of taste or fashion. On the other hand, when I have crept in there over the last few decades wearing my false moustache and dark glasses, I’ve always found their plain woollen sweaters (and a few of their other less-tartaned items) to be excellent value, well-fitting and very hard wearing (which is good, because I then don’t need to visit too often and risk being spotted).

Well, I had a similar desire to conceal my location yesterday, when I was invited onto Radio 5 Live at very short notice to talk about the passing of Sir Clive Sinclair, his influence on the UK’s computer industry, and the importance of having a culture of invention. That was what the text said, anyway, but in fact they ran out of time and so, I think, slotted me in to the last few mins of the show, just to be polite, and join in whatever discussion was ongoing. With the result that we said nothing about Sinclair, almost nothing about computing, and in fact discussed time travel and whether butterflies could fart. (Don’t ask.) It wasn’t the high point of my broadcasting career. The good news is that I suspect there are even fewer of my acquaintances who listen to Radio 5 Live than who shop at Edinburgh Woollen Mills.

I never met Clive Sinclair, though he had a big influence on my life, having produced, in 1981, the first computer that our family could actually own. The BBC’s enjoyable 2009 dramatisation ‘Micro Men’ portrayed him as a bit of a comedic monster, as I remember, and I’m not sure how fair a representation that is. The programme is now available on YouTube, and I must watch it again, because it does depict several people I do know, and generally does them quite well, so perhaps it was accurate. Recommended viewing for all British geeks of a certain age, anyway.

But it is sad, in a way, that Sir Clive is often remembered for the C5 — his low-slung electric tricycle — which was a dismal market failure in 1985, and the butt of much humour, including from me (though as a techy teenager I would secretly have loved one!)

What did impress me, though, as I was making notes for the interview, was the relentless rate at which Sinclair released products:

  • 1977 – The Wrist Calculator and the MK14 kit computer
  • 1980 – The ZX80 – the first affordable home computer in the UK
  • 1981 – The ZX81 – a much better version
  • 1982 – The ZX Spectrum – the UK’s best-selling microcomputer
  • 1983 – The C5 electric trike, and a pocket television! (Which of course, back then, still had to use a CRT.) Also the Microdrive storage system, using tape-based cartridges which could store a whopping 100KB!
  • 1984 – The Sinclair QL
  • 1987 – The Cambridge Z88 – a portable computer with a full-sized keyboard, which ran for ages on four AA batteries. I have one on the desk beside me here.

That’s quite a list for a small company over one decade!

The failure of the C5 basically killed Sinclair Research, and the Sinclair brand was sold to Amstrad in 1986, which is why the Z88 was released under the Cambridge Computer name.

This failure was notable, though, because it followed the great successes of the previous years, which had made Sinclair a household name, and, by deploying affordable, programmable machines into vast numbers of British homes, played a big part in kick-starting the UK’s technology industry. It certainly kick-started my own hobby and eventual career in computing, which is also a good thing for the nation, because otherwise I might have tried to go into broadcasting.

So I would like, if I may, to propose an epitaph for Sir Clive Sinclair:

It is better to have invented and failed, than to never have invented at all.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser