Have you ever wondered how the machines at the end of a bowling alley work? Well, probably not very much, because you’ll have other things on your mind like defeating your friends and family.
But it turns out that they’re terribly cunning.
Rose is moving from her current college office to a new one. In the bottom of a drawer, she found a Zoom modem.
For younger readers, this is a 56K modem, which means that on a really good day, you could transfer data to and from the network at 56 kilobits per second: that’s about 6 kilobytes/sec, once overheads are taken into account. This was pretty much the peak of telephone-based internet access, until ADSL came along.
Also in the same drawer was a floppy disk, which holds around 1.4MB. (I used to boot my first Linux system off one of these.)
So, to transfer the contents of this disk to the network using the modem, if you had a good reliable phone line, would take you about 4 minutes.
Now, the two originals of the photos above, which I snapped with my iPhone, between them take 7MB, or about 5 of those floppy disks, so to send the two still images would have taken around 20 minutes. (Not that we had digital still cameras at all back then, of course.)
This is why, when James T Kirk makes a call from his quarters to the bridge of the Enterprise, it’s almost always an audio call, and on the rare occasions when video is involved, they make sure they show you – it was such a wildly futuristic idea, even within the same starship!
Nobody, even on Star Trek, was daft enough to suggest he might make such a call from his communicator.
I remember in the early days of blogging, I was trying to persuade a good friend of mine that he would be capable of writing a really interesting blog, and his response was something along the lines of ‘Too busying living it to blog it!’ I wasn’t quite sure what to think of that. Was it an enviable, or pitiable, state?
My posts on Status-Q (now approaching its 21st birthday) have always been somewhat bursty and sporadic, and I notice that it’s nearly a month since my last one. I sometimes feel inferior to friends who produce impressive output every single week or even day (though I suppose many of them are not so much writing new content themselves as linking to valuable pieces elsewhere, which is something I generally tend to do a bit less because they do it much better than me!)
So blogging for me is something that generally happens when I have enough interesting stuff going on to write about, but not so much that there’s no time to write! My long-suffering readers just put up with the unpredictability. And this last month has been surprisingly busy, both with work and play, but a lot of the latter… so here are a few quick phone snaps and bits of news, to catch up…
Since the last post, Rose and I went on an RYA sailing course – the first for her and the second for me – and spent a few days living aboard a very fine 35ft boat. Here’s Rose at the helm, heading out to sea:
and we also enjoyed some night sailing on the River Stour:
And little boats…
At the other extreme we’ve been exploring the North Norfolk coast and its challenging tidal currents in our little inflatable boat with its electric outboard, getting up very early to set out with enough water from Morston Quay…
Popping out to see the seals on Blakeney Point:
before heading back inland towards Blakeney…
with the help of local signposts:
…and passing some of the pleasing local craft on the way.
Blakeney high street, which we had wandered down to a favourite restaurant the previous night…
was now our destination port…
and such is the height of the spring tide down at the quay that we could just sail into the carpark and tie up to a bollard there.
The quay soon became crowded with people enjoying jumping in to the warm, voluminous and fast-flowing river, which normally meanders much more sedately through substantial banks of mud and sand.
We walked back along the coast path to Morston, picked up the car, and brought it back to Blakeney, had a coffee and sausage roll for breakfast at the nearby cafe. After that, the rapidly-drying car park was once again full of cars, and we could roll up the boat and take it away.
Of course, if you’re staying in a campsite, but your car is full of spaniels, boats and outboards, then transporting a tent can be a challenge. I do have a roof rack I can put on the Tesla, but I wasn’t too keen on attaching a heavy tent to my glass roof, nor on the likely effects of the resulting aerodynamics on my range.
Then I remembered that I had once bought a custom-made bag to go on our bike-rack when I was using it with our old campervan. It turned out to be a great way to transport the tent.
When we got to the campsite we removed it and had a normal (albeit boat-filled) car for the rest of the weekend. As always when attaching things to my towbar, though, I did need to adopt a slightly unusual position when using a supercharger on the way home!
An old design with new opportunities?
Next to us in the campsite was a rather interesting folding caravan. We made friends with the owner and discovered that it was a Carousel Slimline, a jolly clever design originating in the 70s and produced, in Norfolk, until just a few years ago. They look like this:
The slimline version of the Gobur Carousel.
Now, if you’re thinking that it looks a bit, well, boxy, remember… that’s what you really want when you’re living inside it. Houses are boxy too. Flat vertical walls and high ceilings are desirable, but you normally have to compromise them because of things like aerodynamics when you’re towing behind a car at high speeds. Not with this.
We were rather impressed, and since the company was just a few miles from the campsite, we went and had a look. They even let me try towing one on the Tesla… which worked very well.
For those interested, I got about 3 miles per kWh on my 18-mile test, as compared to about 4 miles/kWh normally. If that was representative for longer journeys, I would still get over 200 miles before recharging, which is just fine!
Turning this trailer into a liveable space takes about 3 minutes, which is rather clever: consider, for example, the fact that the van contains a wardrobe, and kitchen units, and that the folding point is lower then the kitchen worktops… Here’s how it works.
Sadly, new ones are no longer being built, but some enterprising former employees have got together and have an impressive collection of models available which they buy, recondition, service, resell and so forth. We were both impressed and tempted, but have resisted that temptation… so far.
Here’s the thing, though: there’s a real opportunity for designs like this in the world of electric cars. These are both light and streamlined, and even the slimline one gives you a lot more living space then some other alternatives like the Eriba Puck, the GoPod or some of the sexy teardrop-shaped options on the market. There’s an opportunity for an investor here, I think, to keep a classic alive and to market it as the EV-friendly caravan option for the future.
Combining the themes of boats and electric propulsion, I’m in danger of boring some of my friends by telling them how wonderful I think electric outboard motors are. (I’ve put lots more on one of my YouTube playlists if you’re interested, though.)
But yesterday, my friend Douglas and I sailed our little dinghy down the River Blackwater from the very friendly and welcoming sailing club at Stone St Lawrence and round to Brightlingsea on the River Colne. On the way, we passed the old Radio Caroline ship, which will bring back memories to UK readers of a certain age…
We made it to Brightlingsea, with a little exploration of West Mersea on the way. It’s rather fun sailing 12 miles along the edge of the North Sea in a little 12-foot boat. (That’s nautical miles, of course, so 13-and-a-bit to you landlubbers.)
The harbourmaster kindly let us tie up on the jetty while we went and got a hot chocolate at a local cafe.
Then we headed back, which we knew would have been rather a slow sail because it was into the wind, so we were planning to use the outboard, and this was made really easy by a new accessory I had just got for it. Details are here for those interested.
In the end the wind almost completely vanished, leaving us cruising silently up a glassy estuary towards the sunset as the evening came on. A very pleasant end to the day.
It’s hard to believe that this has still, in general, been a normal working month involving lots of other things like trips to the vet, a family funeral, speccing out a solar-and-battery system for the house, lots of software development and some important deadlines for important clients. Fortunately, we’re going away at the end of next week to recover.
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!
I’m a big fan of my Apple AirTags. I have a few of them now, and they’ve been jolly useful on several occasions, enabling me to find things quickly that would otherwise have involved more time and stress, or to notice that something has been left behind and so recover it far sooner than would otherwise have been possible.
They’re very cunning devices. Tilly even has one on her collar now!
For those not familiar with the underlying technology, the general challenge with locating devices in the past has been that it typically involves two components: a GPS receiver (to find out where the item is), and a connection to the mobile phone network (to report that location to whomever may be looking for it). Both of these need significant battery power, so trackers have been bulky, required frequent recharging, and the phone connection generally implied a subscription. In the past, therefore, tracking has generally been reserved for valuable things which can carry big batteries, like cars, or like smartphones which happen already to have the necessary functions built-in and get recharged every night.
Since I have been known, just occasionally, to be a little absent-minded, I have made extensive use of Apple’s ‘Find my…’ system over the years to locate iPhones, iPads, even spouses. And before you scoff, I should mention that my knowledge of how to use it also once won me an enthusiastic embrace in the middle of a field from a rather beautiful young woman who was a complete stranger to me. So there! But that’s a story for another day…
Anyway, the AirTags have neither a GPS nor a big battery, and yet still manage to transmit their location back to you remarkably effectively in most circumstances. How do they do it? Well, they can be detected by any passing iPhone, and there are a billion of those moving around the world, so there’s a surprisingly good chance that if a human passes close to your lost bunch of keys, you’ll get to know about its location fairly soon.
The AirTags are also, I believe, the first large-scale deployment of UWB location technology, the details of which are beyond the scope of this post, but it basically means that if you have a recent iPhone, when you get really close to the Tag, you can be guided to it using a compass-needle-type display, in a way that would not be possible with something like Bluetooth alone. You can find out not just that your wallet is in this room, but that it’s behind this sofa cushion.
Still, my use of AirTags has been very practical and prosaic. Others have had more fun, and a YouTuber calling himself AirtagAlex has done some wonderful experiments over the last few months of mailing AirTags to different parts of the world and seeing the routes they took to reach their destination.
I rather liked his latest video, though, which explores one of those questions you might never have thought of asking in the past: what actually happens if you get on a plane and leave something in the pocket of the seat in front of you?
Now you’ll be able to explain if anybody says, “I think Quentin has finally cracked. I saw him jet-washing his lawn the other day!”
Twice, while I was clearing the driveway, as if by way of defiance, a leaf came down and landed on my head! It occurred to me that if I pointed the lance upwards, I could probably have blasted the last few leaves from the tree and swept them all up together, rather than having to wait for the next gale…
“Model railways”, someone once told me, “are a lot like breasts. They’re meant to be there for the children, but it’s always the men who want to play with them.”
Well, though I’ve always liked and admired them, they’re not something I ever went in for very much myself. Model railways, I mean.
It must be much more fun these days, though, since I gather you can get engines with cameras in them, giving a driver’s-eye view of your carefully-constructed world. I’d love to see one of those in action!
But, lest you should think that model trains are purely frivolous, Tom Scott’s latest video shows that they can have serious uses too.
Now that must have been great fun to build! And, as Tom mentions, and as some of my colleagues in the Computer Lab discovered a few years back, users exhibit a lot more engagement with something if there’s likely to be a physical crash when they get it wrong or lose concentration. Even if that crash only involves a model, it’s a great deal more compelling than a simulator on a screen.
I don’t think, by the way, that I’ve ever seen one of Tom’s YouTube videos that wasn’t worth watching. Subscription definitely recommended.
[untitled] OK, I guess I’m just a bit slow, but I’ve...
I had an interesting start to the day. Regular readers of this blog will probably have heard quite enough about webcams and coffee pots, but that’s apparently not true for everybody in the world…
Thirty years ago today, Sir Tim turned on his first public webserver, which means that this is one of the days that people have chosen to label as the 30th anniversary of the Web. As it happens, we’re also not too far from the 30th anniversary of the day when we turned on the Trojan Room coffee pot camera, which would be connected to the web a couple of years later and so become the first webcam.
Anyway, I sometimes get wheeled out as a suitable relic to display from this era, and I had an email yesterday from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire asking if I was willing to be on the Louise Hulland show first thing this morning. I said yes, and they were going to contact me with further details… but I heard nothing more, so presumed it wasn’t going ahead. Until, that is, I emerged from my shower this morning, draped in my dressing gown but dripping slightly, to hear my phone ringing… and answered it only to be dropped into a live interview. However much I like networked video, there are times when audio really is the best medium! Anyway, it’s here, for the record.
Perhaps better is an interview that was actually recorded quite some time ago by Jim Boulton for the Centre for Computing History, but which they first published today as part of the local Web@30 event. In it, I am (a) slightly more compos mentis, since it was recorded later in the day and I had consumed more coffee, and (b) rather better attired.
There was a period of a few years when I played quite extensively with VOIP, which for the uninitiated, stands for Voice-Over-Internet-Protocols, sometimes called ‘IP Telephony’. This isn’t about Zoom and Skype and FaceTime, but about traditional phone calls: the things your parents used to make (and maybe still do), often using devices attached to the wall with wires!
It all seems very obvious now, but there was a point between about 20 and 10 years ago when the typical office phone changed from being an audio device plugged into a landline-style connection with analogue voltages talking to a phone exchange, to being something digital that plugged into the ethernet and had an IP address. Telephone calls, hitherto controlled by large national monopolies with expensive proprietary equipment and hideously complex signalling protocols, started to become something ordinary users could manage with their own software, even Open Source software.
Companies that had previously paid vast sums of money to buy or lease a PBX (the ‘Private Branch Exchange’ that gave you internal phone numbers and routed calls to and from external numbers), could now just install software on a cheap PC and route calls to phone handsets over the local network. If you also routed calls over the wider internet, limitations of most broadband connections meant that the quality and reliability left something to be desired, but, as one perceptive observer commented at the time, “The great thing about mobile networks is that they have lowered people’s expectations of telephony to the point where VOIP is a viable solution.”
And what you could do in an office, you could also do at home, just for fun. I loved this stuff, because in my youth telephony had embodied the quintessence of big faceless corporations: you paid them, they told you what you could and couldn’t do with the socket in your wall, you lived with the one phone number they decided to give you, and could only plug in the equipment that they approved. Any variations on this theme rapidly became very expensive.
With VOIP, however, you could now get multiple phone numbers in your own house and configure how they were handled yourself. I had one number that was registered in Seattle (because I was doing lots of work there), but it rang a phone in my home office in Cambridge — the same one that also had one Cambridge number and one London one — with the calls routed halfway around the world over the internet, basically for free. All of a sudden, you could do things that the Post Office, BT, AT&T, or whoever, would never have let you do in the past. It was fun!
Part of my interest came from the clear parallels between how phone calls were handled in this new world, and the way HTTP requests were handled on the web. I first got involved in telephony with the AT&T Broadband Phone project back in 1999, when my friends and I had to write our own telephony stack based on the new SIP protocol, and build our own custom hardware to connect our SIP network to real-world phone lines.
But, as with the early days of the web, Open Source servers soon emerged so you didn’t have to write your own! The Asterisk and, a little later, FreeSwitch packages were very much analogous to Apache and Nginx in the web world. Calls came in, and you decided what to do with them using a set of configuration rules similar to those that might determine what page or image to return for a particular URL. Voice prompts and keypad button presses were a bit like forms and submit buttons on web pages… and so on.
Anyway, there were a couple of quick hacks that I put together at the time which turned out to be rather useful, so if you’re still with me after the history lesson above, I’ll describe them.
The Christmas Call Diary
We were a young startup company, with about half-a-dozen employees, operating primarily out of a garden shed in Cambridge. But we had sold products to real customers who expected a decent level of support. As Christmas approached, we realised that the office was going to be empty for about a fortnight, and started to wonder what would happen if anybody had technical support issues and needed urgent help.
So I set up a shared Google calendar, and asked everyone to volunteer to be available for particular periods of time over the holiday, just in case any customers called; a possibility that was, we hoped, pretty unlikely, but it would improve our reputation no end if somebody did answer. All we had to do was put entries in the calendar that contained our mobile or home number during times when we didn’t mind being disturbed. People valiantly signed up.
We were running a VOIP exchange on an old Dell PC, and I wrote a script to handle incoming calls, which worked like this:
When a call comes in, ring all the phones in the office for a short while.
If nobody picks up, then look at the special Google Calendar to see if there’s a current entry, and if its contents look like a phone number. If so, then divert the call to that number.
If it isn’t answered after a short while, send the caller to our voicemail system, and email the resulting message to all of us.
In the end, I don’t think anybody did call, but the script worked as intended, and allowed us to have a more worry-free Christmas break, which was perhaps its most important achievement!
Back in 2006, I registered the domain MeetingBuster.com, and thanks to the wonderful Internet Archive, I can see once again what the front page looked like, which neatly explains its purpose (click if you need a larger image):
A later update allowed you to call MeetingBuster and press a number key within 10 seconds, and your callback would then happen that many tens of minutes later, so pressing ‘3’ just before going into a meeting would give you an option to escape from it after half an hour. (Remember this was all well before the iPhone was released, so all such interactions had to be based on DTMF tones.)
Anyway, Meetingbuster was just for fun, and there are probably better ways to escape from today’s virtual meetings. But if/when we go back to face-to-face meetings again, and you need an excuse to say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I really ought to answer that; do you mind?”, then let me know and perhaps I can revive it!