I love this cartoon! It’s a great illustration of why Quentin’s Second Law can prove so challenging.
In the 1981 edition of Andrew Tanenbaum’s textbook Computer Networks, he asks the student to calculate the bandwidth capacity of a St Bernard dog carrying floppy disks.
Nearly two decades later, when I worked in the Olivetti Research Lab, we had extremely high-bandwidth connections (for the time) to the University Computer Lab about a quarter of a mile down the road. But we used to point out that we could get a great deal higher bandwidth by giving some tapes to Prof. Sir Maurice Wilkes, already in his eighties, and asking him to put them in his bicycle basket. The bandwidth was excellent, though the round-trip latency wasn’t quite so impressive since he would usually have a cup of tea, and often a snooze, before coming back.
Well, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say. Recently I had to shift 4TB of data from the Computer Lab here in Cambridge to our corporate sponsors based at the University of Warwick. It’s too hard to connect directly via the various institutional firewalls, so I suggested buying and mailing a hard disk. But, since we already had an S3 account set up for the project, they preferred the idea of me uploading the data to a place where they could download it at their leisure.
Now, S3, for those not familiar with it, is the ‘Scalable Storage Service’: a splendid offering from Amazon where you can upload and store as much data as you like without ever having to worry about running out of disk space. The prices are generally pretty reasonable; you pay nothing to put data in, and a low cost per gigabyte per month for the storage. Transferring out is free for modest amounts, but that price does start to ramp up when you start downloading a lot, as we were to find out.
Uploading 4TB is also not something you should try at home unless you’re going away for a week or two, but in the University we have a pretty good connection, so the upload took me, I think, about 7 or 8 hours. Interestingly, this is comparable to the time needed to cycle from here to Warwick, though perhaps not for an octogenarian. The data was on S3 for about a month, because distractions, and technical issues with permissions, proxies and DNS servers, meant it took a while for my colleague at the other end to download everything. They don’t have nearly such a good connection as we do, so I imagine it took rather longer for them to download than it had for me to upload. So even if we ignore the intervening month, this was a process of at least 20 hours, which, I suppose, is roughly how long an energetic St Bernard might take to do the journey.
And we got the bill, which came to nearly £400.
So, just by way of comparison, an Uber driver from Cambridge to Warwick would charge about £120 and a 4TB drive can be found on Amazon for about £80, giving a total of about half the price of our S3 transfer, and the car would take about 2hrs to get there. If I’d been willing for the transfer to take as long as it took us, I could have used a next-day courier and halved the price again.
Now, I realise there are lots of simplifications here, ways I could have transferred the data at lower cost, etc. But it’s worth bearing in mind some of the challenges with network and cloud services; and I suspect it’ll be some time before the process of shifting physical media around is really behind us!
In October 1999, I was interviewed by Leo Laporte on ZDTV’s ‘Call for Help’ programme. Yes, this is just another interview about the Trojan Room Coffee Pot, but it’s interesting to me for several reasons.
Firstly because, even though it’s nearly 20 years ago, I’ve only just seen it! They kindly sent me a VHS tape of the episode at the time, but (no doubt with good intentions) they encoded it with a rather unusual 50Hz variety of NTSC, and I’ve never been able to play it. It was only last week that, before throwing it out, I went to the trouble of tracking down somebody who was able to tell me that, yes, indeed, there was actually something on the tape…
Secondly, it was quite a challenge to do the recording. They sent me a camera in advance, and I had a slightly older PC which didn’t have the brand new USB ports that were just starting to appear, so I had to dismantle it, install an ISA card, and then repartition my hard disk and install Windows 95, because neither the Linux nor the Windows NT operating systems I had on there were supported by 3Com’s software.
But chiefly, it’s a nice nostalgic snapshot of tech life not too long ago. The rest of the episode provides helpful hints like: you’re probably used to installing hardware in your machine before inserting the CDROM or floppy with the drivers, but with USB it’s a good idea to install the drivers first. Files you download over your modem may be compressed and you’ll need a thing called WinZip to see what’s inside them. And Chris Breen (later an editor at MacWorld), comes on to explain that if you’re trying to play DVDs on your computer and they keep skipping, it may be because you’re connected to a network that does something called DHCP. The PC can’t do that and play back smoothly at the same time, so it may be worth disabling DHCP before you start watching. Oh, and there’s also a section about how, if you have a laptop, you may find it a pain to be tethered to your modem, but there are some wireless networking options becoming available, and the one that looks most promising for the future is this thing called 802.11…
The clip I’ve uploaded shows the interview from the studio in California, with me in Cambridge, and we’re joined by Don Lekei from Canada a bit later. It’s hard now to remember just how rare it was at the time to see people on TV live from remote locations. That normally needed satellite linkups, or very costly kit attached to extremely expensive international ISDN calls. For Don and I to talk casually from the comfort of our own homes on opposite sides of the world was enough to get the hosts of a tech show pretty excited. You’ll note that we both use telephones as well, though, because there wasn’t any suitable audio channel…
Anyway, Leo is now the head of the substantial TWiT netcasting network, so I guess networked video worked out well for him too 🙂
The Dutch RTL News programme did a short piece last week on the fact that the webcam was now about 25 years old.
They interviewed me for just a few minutes, after, ironically, having to spend about 45 mins getting their Skype working.
If, like me, you don’t speak any Dutch, you can hear me at about 0:16 and 1:24, and, in between the two, see some pictures of a much younger me!
Here’s a timely reminder, if one were needed, that you should never assume anything you store online is going to be there for very long, unless it’s on a system (a) that you are paying for and ideally (b) that you run or manage.
Flickr has announced that it’s going to start removing photos from its free accounts: everyone can still have 1,000 images, but that’s much less storage than they offered for free in the past. If you have more than that, they’ll start deleting the older ones first. I starting uploading things to Flickr about 13 or 14 years ago, so 90% of my 10,000 Flickr images will vanish over the next few months.
Most of the Snapchat/Instagram generation are probably not interested in anything that happened more than 1000 images ago! But people who have used Flickr for archiving the first pictures of their children or grandchildren may be in for a surprise. The name ‘Flickr’ might have a certain irony to it…
Now, this is a perfectly reasonable thing for the company to do, and there are several ways you can deal with it: you can start paying for your account, you can download your images if you don’t have local copies, or you can migrate them over to Smugmug (who now own Flickr). But only the first of those options will keep your photos nicely arranged in their albums, and, more importantly, will preserve your image URLs, so I imagine there will be a very large number of pages around the world with Flickr-shaped holes in them where an image used to be. Whichever option you choose, do it before the end of the year.
Now, I’ve been a fan of Flickr for a long time, and paid for an account for about a decade — it’s a good service and reasonably priced — but I switched to Smugmug a few years back because it was a better fit for my occasional bits of professional work. I don’t mind paying for one photo storage service, but I’d rather not pay for two, especially from the same company! So my photo archive has been copied to SmugMug, and I’ll probably need to write a bit of code to go through my blog and fix Flickr URLs. The album arrangements, though, will vanish if I take this approach.
Anyway, the moral of the story is this: You need to look after your own data. Don’t assume that anyone else will do it for you, on a long-term basis, and especially if you’re not paying for the service! In particular, don’t assume that any URL is going to continue to work in the future unless it’s on a domain that you control and manage.
Remember that this will almost certainly also happen at some point to the pages you have on Facebook, the images you have on Instagram and the videos you have on YouTube. Don’t assume that a service will continue indefinitely because the company is large or because it has a model based on advertising revenue. I had stuff on Google Video too…
I’m talking about the reviews that give something 5 stars, with the explanation: “I haven’t opened this yet but I’m sure my son will love it”.
Or the ones that slam a product with 1 star: “Arrived a day late and the postman left it in the wrong place.” So you want to punish your postman by telling people this isn’t a good camera, say? How does that work?
Discussing this with my friend Mac in the pub last night, we came up with a simple solution: When writing an Amazon review, you should be asked for separate ratings, as you are with TripAdvisor. They might be:
The first one should then become part of the rating of the supplier, not the product.
You could just have one other value, but splitting it into two like this might make people think a bit more, and allow you to take your price sensitivity into account when making a decision.
And someone who gives everything 1 star is probably just grumpy and their opinion should be weighted accordingly!
Then you could make more informed decisions like “This seems good, but I don’t want to buy it here”, or “I know this is isn’t great, but I just want something cheap”.
What do you think? Please rate this blog post under the following three categories…
Last night we went into London because the kind people at the Lovie Awards, the European branch of the (rather better-known) Webby Awards, had been good enough to give me an award, mostly for the work that friends and I had done in creating the first webcam.
I was a bit embarrassed about this, partly because I didn’t think I deserved it, and partly because of the name, but I got over the latter, at least, when I discovered that it’s in honour of Ada Lovelace.
Anyway, the tradition is that you have to give a little speech containing the word ‘Love’. The other tradition, which nobody told me, is that the speech should be about 30 seconds, which is why I look a bit more flustered than usual here! I was trying, not very successfully, to edit my speech on the fly. But I got away with it because mine was the last award of the evening.
It was a great and responsive audience, which, sadly, you can’t hear on this video.
A couple of days ago, I received some suggestions for improvements to a program I had written. This isn’t unusual: I’m writing code all the time, and much of it needs improving. (Thanks, Sam!) No, the surprise in this case was that the suggested changes were to a little script called newslist.py that I wrote in 1994 and haven’t updated since. It wasn’t very important or impressive, but seeing it again made me a bit nostalgic, because it was very much an artefact of its time.
For a couple of years, I had been playing with early versions of a new programming language called Python (still at version 0.9 when first I fell in love with it). In those days, online discussions about things like new languages occurred on forums called Usenet newsgroups. (As an aside, I was also playing with a new operating system called Linux, which Linus Torvalds had announced on the
comp.os.minix newsgroup with one of those throwaway phrases that have gone down in history: “I’m doing a (free) operating system — just a hobby, won’t be big and professional…”.)
Anyway, the Usenet group archives are still accessible now through web servers like Google Groups, but the usual way to read them back then was to fire up a news-reading program and point it at a local news server, which could serve up the messages to you using the ‘network news transfer protocol’ NNTP. Since you wouldn’t necessarily have a fast connection to anywhere else in the world from your desktop, organisations such as universities and the more enlightened companies would run their own NNTP servers and arrange with their pals in other organisations to synchronise everything gradually in the background (or, at least, to synchronise the newsgroups they thought would be of local interest). When a user posted a new message, it would trickle out to most of the servers around the world, typically over the next few hours.
But another novelty was catching my attention at that time… This thing called the World Wide Web. Early web browsers generally spoke enough NNTP to be able to display a message (and maybe even the list of messages in a group), so you could include ‘news://‘ URLs in your web pages to refer to Usenet content. But a browser wasn’t much good for more general news perusal because it didn’t have a way to find out which newsgroups were available on your local server. My newslist.py script was designed to fill that gap by connecting to the server, getting the list of its groups, and creating a web page with links to them displayed in a nice hierarchical structure. You could then dispense with your special newsgroup app, at least for the purposes of reading.
When version 1.1 of Python was released, Guido van Rossum added a Demo directory with some examples of things you could do with the language, and newslist.py was included. And there it remained for a couple of decades, until, I discover, it was removed in 2.7.9 because the comment I had casually included at the top about it being free “for non-commercial use” no longer quite fit with the current Python licensing scheme. (I would happily have changed that, had I known, but I wouldn’t have imagined anybody was still using it!) The Demo directory itself was dropped in Python 3, and so newslist.py was consigned to the historical archives.
So you can understand my surprise at discovering that somebody was still experimenting with it now! I didn’t know anybody had an NNTP server any more.
What’s almost more surprising is that one of my two email addresses, mentioned in the code, is still working 23 years later, so he was able to write and tell me!
All of which tells me I should probably pay more attention to what I put in the comments at the top of my code in future…
Jenna Wortham writes in the NYT Magazine about how being connected to everybody doesn’t necessarily make us more broadminded.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that Donald Trump could be elected president, but I was. I live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan, two of the most liberal places in the country. But even online, I wasn’t seeing many signs of support for him. How did that blindness occur? Social media is my portal into the rest of the world — my periscope into the communities next to my community, into how the rest of the world thinks and feels. And it completely failed me.
In hindsight, that failure makes sense. I’ve spent nearly 10 years coaching Facebook — and Instagram and Twitter — on what kinds of news and photos I don’t want to see, and they all behaved accordingly. Each time I liked an article, or clicked on a link, or hid another, the algorithms that curate my streams took notice and showed me only what they thought I wanted to see. That meant I didn’t realize that most of my family members, who live in rural Virginia, were voicing their support for Trump online, and I didn’t see any of the pro-Trump memes that were in heavy circulation before the election. I never saw a Trump hat or a sign or a shirt in my feeds, and the only Election Day selfies I saw were of people declaring their support for Hillary Clinton.
In April, Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, addressed a room of developers about the importance of his social network. Facebook, he said, has the power to bring people together who might otherwise never have the chance to meet. “The internet has enabled all of us to access and share more ideas and information than ever before,” he said. “We’ve gone from a world of isolated communities to one global community, and we are all better off for it.”
But that’s not what has happened.
I love these nihilistic security questions from Soheil Rezayazdi…
Thanks to Rory C-J for the link.
© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser