Tag Archives: history

Looking backwards at the future

Searching recently for emails from one of my academic colleagues, I came across one or two that appeared to have the address written backwards. He works in the Computer Lab at Cambridge, and the email was from user@uk.ac.cam.cl. What was going on?

Well, the simple answer was that my mail archives stretch back quite a long way. I have emails I received from my friend Peter just last week, but I also have some from him that arrived in the early 1990s, and this was just about the time that the UK’s academic networks were switching from the Name Resolution Scheme (NRS) they had used up to that point, over to the Domain Name System (DNS) which was becoming the standard in other parts of the world. NRS addresses started at the more general, and worked down to the more specific. Hence uk.ac.cam.cl.

Actually, email addresses in general tended to look like USER@UK.AC.CAM.CL because on mainframes EVERYTHING TENDED TO BE IN CAPITALS. But Peter was fortunate enough to be an early user of Xerox and Unix-based systems, which were more lower-casey; more cuddly California, less corporate IBM. By the start of the 90s, I too had an email address that looked like quentin.stafford-fraser@uk.ac.cam.cl.

Anyway, the fact that I still have emails from 30 years ago made me reflect, once again, on how extraordinarily successful email has been, not just as a communication medium, but as a storage format.

When I think back on other electronic documents of the time, few, if any could be read now. The companies behind my early ‘desktop publishing’ programs are no longer in existence. Microsoft Word long ago lost the the ability to open documents it had created in the past. And I imagine my documents from WordStar, WordPerfect, Microsoft Works and others would be just as challenging, if I could even find them.

But my email messages I can find. And I can read them. This is despite the fact that they have been through dozens of different email systems, created by a wide range of apps on multiple operating systems, stored on servers around the world and hard disks in my various homes and offices, and accessed through a range of different protocols (IMAP, for most of that period). Not only is my email readable, but it’s easily searchable from multiple locations using a choice of apps on any of my devices. It’s tagged with helpful metadata about authorship, time of creation and receipt, etc. I can choose to store it myself or pay others to do so. And so on. Almost no other digital storage system has proved as powerful and flexible as IMAP-accessed email.

Much of this comes, of course, from the fact that email is governed by open standards, accessed through open protocols, and often stored in non-proprietary formats. Because it is fundamentally about inter-operation, email providers have had no choice. It bugs me that I don’t have my pre-1991 emails, but that was probably because of an inadvertent slip on my part, or a hard disk crash, or something, rather than because of a fundamental limitation of the technology. If I do ever find them on some backup, I’m confident I’ll be able to include them in my archive.

This explains why, like some of my colleagues, I’ve resisted my University’s recent attempts to migrate our email accounts from our existing Open-Source-based system to Microsoft Exchange Online. It’s not because I dislike Exchange per se; after a rocky first decade or two it seems to be settling down quite nicely. But I don’t want to use a Microsoft email reader on all my devices — my own are much better, thank you — and Exchange has repeatedly shown an inability to support IMAP reliably. The messages are also not stored anywhere on a server where I could extract them by any other means in a standard format when I want to move them elsewhere. And I will want to move them elsewhere at some point; history shows me that. Fortunately, I have that power. If my email shows any danger of being locked into proprietary formats, I can simply arrange for it to be forwarded to my own servers and handle it however I like there; that’s what I’ll do if the University turns off the old system completely. And since almost everything does support IMAP, I can move emails around the world to my preferred location with a simple drag and drop.

One of my colleagues said in a recent meeting that his children don’t know what the fuss is about. Email is just something they glance at once a week to see if they’ve had any. As long as it works, they don’t mind where it comes from. Well, they may be right; perhaps it will be less important in future. But this may also be a natural tendency of the young just to focus on the immediate here and now, and the immediate future.

To me, and occasionally to other people, my email archive has turned out to be important. Something I wrote 20 years ago becomes relevant to a patent case now and earns me money because I can look back at the records. Interviewers ask me about the technologies used in a particular project and I can search back to find the answers. I forget the name of a good B&B or hotel in a particular city; email allows me to find it again. I generally had no idea, at the time, that these communications might prove to be important. But they’re a key part of the history of my life.

So here’s my question: If the things you’re doing today turn out to be important a few decades from now, what sort of digital archive would they need to be in for you to find and make use of them then? Best to start using that today, before it’s too late.

Boredom, Toothbrushes and Terminals

When I was a child, we were not allowed to be bored. Boredom, my mother insisted, was a sign of laziness and lack of imagination, and nobody fortunate enough to have all their faculties intact should complain of it.

Some of this came, I think, from lessons my grandfather had instilled in her. Some of it may have been because we had just come back from several years in northern Kenya, where kids in extreme poverty who had no toys would just make their own out of sticks and bits of wire, and play happily with them for hours. Who were we, with boxes full of toys, shelves full of books, and minds full of stories, to complain of boredom? (And that was when the Web and YouTube were still decades away. There’s surely no excuse now!)

Anyway, it was a great lesson, and one that’s always stuck with me. I don’t remember ever being bored in my life, though the nearest I’ve come has not been when I’ve nothing to do, but when I’ve had to do some tedious repetitive task for hours on end…

Of toothbrushes and terminals

In my teens, I had a holiday job for a couple of weeks at the local factory where they made Wisdom toothbrushes. The company was changing the prices of the whole stock, and my job was to sit in front of the mainframe terminal and adjust the wholesale price of the blue toothbrush in a particular range from 23.4p to 23.9p, then do the same for the red toothbrush, the pink toothbrush, the yellow, the white… and so on for every colour they made — there were many — after which I would move on to the next range.

The problem was that this involved navigating very slowly through a deep hierarchical menu which was totally unsuited for this purpose. Today, if these were rows in a spreadsheet, it would be done in about 20 minutes. But we didn’t have spreadsheets back then, my lad. Instead, I had to dig about six layers into the keyboard-driven menu system for the particular stock item, make the change, and then exit from each layer to get back to the top before moving onto the next one.

There was no way to bypass these steps, to speed up the process. No way out of the menu. The display, which I think was probably something like the VT220 pictured above, updated very slowly over its slow connection to an overloaded mainframe. This explained why they had to employ me for many days to perform this simple task. It also taught me a lot about user interface design.

However…

It turned out that the terminal wasn’t completely dumb. On one of our tea-breaks — and yes, we really did have a tea-lady who would come through the office with a trolley of clinking cups at the allotted time — I discovered, in the back of a desk drawer, a manual for the terminal.

I found out that it could be programmed through a simple menu to send a set of keystrokes when it was switched on and connected to the mainframe, in order to identify itself, login, or whatever. This facility wasn’t used in our system, but — and this was the moment of enlightenment for me — you could also cause the sequence to be sent at any time by pressing Ctrl-Break! So I could use it as a kind of macro-recording system (not that I would have known of that concept back then).

Once I started on a new range of, say, the Mickey Mouse toothbrushes, I would work out the sequence of keystrokes needed to update one price: enter, right cursor, down, down, down, right, up, 23.9, enter, escape, enter, escape, escape, or whatever, followed by the down arrow to get to the next toothbrush. I’d program that into the terminal’s setup menu and then just hit Ctrl-Break a dozen times and sit back and watch the menu update as fast as the mainframe could manage (which wasn’t very fast).

Later that day, my boss — a great guy — came by and saw me reclining in my chair, reading something. “Having a quiet afternoon, are we, Quentin?”, he asked.

“No, I’m busy”, I explained, and gestured to the screen, where the all-too-familiar menus seemed to be operating themselves at great speed while I sat back and sipped my tea.

I’ll never forget the expression on his face.

However, I guess all such Sorcerer’s Apprentice tales must have a cautionary aspect to them. In my case, the work was finished much sooner, so I was out of a job.

Perhaps there’s a lesson there. In that case, though, I can’t say I was too sorry!

The least autonomous cars?

Since my last post was about the most high-tech cars around, let’s go to the other extreme (well, almost), and look at the earlier days of automotive user interfaces. This, for example, is a handy guide for drivers of the Model T Ford, showing how you should adjust the throttle, and advance the ignition, based on what you want to achieve.

Kids these days have probably never seen a manual choke, let alone a manual ignition advance! (If you want to know what an ignition advance lever is and why you might need one, Wikipedia will tell you). Now, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever had to use one either, but I’ve ridden in cars where the driver did.

I’ve never actually ridden in a Model T, though I’ve sat in one, in Henry Ford’s garage, no less. But if you should ever find yourself in the driving seat, don’t assume that the three pedals and the handbrake-like lever will do what you expect.

Here’s a nice demonstration to show you the basics:

The previous holocaust

Tomorrow is the centenary of the start of the second biggest genocide in history.

Here’s what I wrote about it ten years ago:

Who remembers the Armenians?

My wife’s family, on one side, are Armenian. Her grandparents managed to escape the ruthless Turkish ethnic cleansing of 1915 by getting a boat to America, but most of the rest of their families were wiped out.

This is one of history’s biggest and yet least-known atrocities, so it’s refereshing to read Ben Macintyre’s article What’s the Turkish for Genocide?, which suggests that Turkey really ought at least to acknowledge its past before being allowed into the EU.

The question “Who remembers … the Armenians?”, by the way, was used by Hitler to reassure his generals that another holocaust they were embarking on would not be a long-term problem. It would be sad if any future dictators were still able to use the same reasoning.

Ridge and furrow

One of the fields in nearby Coton used to be ploughed using the medieval ‘ridge and furrow‘ technique. The remaining undulations are fairly subtle, but they made pretty patterns as the snow melted.

Ridge and Furrow

A pleasing demonstration of the benefits of even a very slightly south-facing slope!

Cambridge Chronicles

Mitchams cornerCantabrigian readers might enjoy a site I’ve just found, Andrew Brett’s Cambridge Back Chat. It’s a fine collection of local history blog posts on a variety of subjects… I, for one, didn’t know that Mitcham’s Corner was named after a clothes shop that used to stand there. Here’s another view.

The entry I enjoyed most, though, is a very pleasing account of a Bleriot-pattern monoplane landing on Parker’s Piece in 1911.

The full piece is here, and I recommend reading the whole thing, but here’s an extract:

At last Mr Moorhouse gave the word “Let go,” and the machine darted forward across the turf at a great pace, heading slightly to the left of the electric light standard in the centre of the Piece. After running about 120 yards the machine was seen to be rising. The wheels were lifting off the grass, and the whole structure was inclining gently upwards. A few yards and she was wholly clear of the ground, and soaring gracefully upwards. It was a beautiful and a wonderful sight to see how the slender fabric seemed to be converted from a thing of earth, struggling as it were to free itself from the invisible bonds that held it down, into a thing of grace and beauty, fairy-like, almost ethereal, freed from grosser things, that seemed to glide through the air as if it were in its native element and to exalt in its freedom from the trammels of earth. There was something awesome in the sight. One seemed to be looking on at the birth of some strange new thing of wondrous possibilities – the dawn of a new era in the history of mankind.

Ah, local papers were worth reading back then!

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser