Tag Archives: Computing

Back to the Future: Hits and Misses

Photo by Erin Cadigan

Photo by Erin Cadigan

In the 1985 film “Back To The Future II,” the characters create a time machine and travel 30 years into the future, to October 21, 2015. I am a fan of the trilogy so I have been thinking about how accurately they portrayed our current year. There were some hits and some misses.

Flying Cars

While we do not yet have commercially available flying cars we do have working autonomous vehicles. Google has prototypes driving on city streets in California. Toyota, Volvo, Audi, Mercedes Benz, Apple, and Tesla are also developing self-driving cars. Apparently it is easier to develop a self-driving car than a flying car. Now, if only we could develop an autonomous flying car, that would be really cool.

Hoverboards

In the movie, the main character rides a levitating skateboard, which he calls a hoverboard. We do have those, although they are not in mass production. Lexus recently demonstrated a hoverboard, partly to coincide with the date in the movie, which may be the first step toward their goal of developing a levitating car. If they succeed, we could some day have flying cars, but they wouldn’t fly high up in the air like in “Back To The Future” or “The Jetsons.”

Fax Machines in Every Room

In one scene of the movie, they show a home with multiple fax machines. I think we moved past this technology. Fax machines are still available as standalone machines or integrated into scanner/printers, but faxing has largely been replaced by other electronic communication methods. Now we have screens in every room and in every hand.

Large Screen Advertising

When the main character arrives in the future, there is outdoor advertising everywhere on large screens, almost to distraction. I think we have this one covered. I can drive down the highway now and see full color video on billboards. In 1985 who would have thought we would have 60-inch high definition televisions in our homes? In terms of screen size, we subscribe to the “bigger is better” philosophy. The largest current sports arena screen is the Jumbotron in Houston, which measures 52 feet high and 277 feet wide. We have definitely figured out how to make large displays.

Thoughts

Some things, such as flying cars, have been anticipated since the 1950s, but we haven’t quite perfected them. Other predictions are already old school. I wonder if movie scripts mimic our ingenuity and development, or is it the other way around? If we were to make a movie today portraying 2045, what would it look like? Will we all still be walking around looking at six-inch screens or will we have integrated our viewing into wearables such as glasses and holographic projections? What do you predict for the future? Let me know your thoughts and I will circle back in 2045 to see if you are right.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

Early Women in Technology: Cracking the Enigma

A woman works on the American Bombe. Image in public domain.Last week I wrote about women in technology, a theme I’m continuing because there are so many women who played key roles in pioneering technologies, especially in early computing. This post is dedicated to all of my friends in the United Kingdom.

Cracking the Enigma Code

A recent TechRepublic article showcased the contributions of the British Government Code and Cypher School toward breaking the code of the German Enigma encryption machine during World War II. There were over 10,000 people working on this top-secret decryption effort, two thirds of whom were women. Many of them were just out of college or even just out of high school. Their job was to experiment with different decoding combinations that would crack messages being relayed by German command to the field. The decoding work went on in shifts, 24 hours a day. Every 24 hours the Germans changed the encryption algorithm so the British task started anew each day. The British needed a faster way to break the daily encryption code so that they could decode more messages.

Contributions to the Turing Machine

Alan Turing developed an electromechanical machine called the Bombe, which was designed to emulate several German Enigma encryption machines. While his invention did hasten the end of the war, it still took monumental human effort to configure it and run it each day. That task fell largely to the Women’s Royal Naval Service or the Wrens. Large drums had to be set from the front and boards had to be correctly plugged in the back, based on a menu or set of instructions for the day. The members of the Code and Cypher School, including the Wrens, worked in eight-hour shifts, often changing shifts weekly. Their mission was top secret, so they were not able to tell their families about their work. Because of this secrecy, many of these women and men were not given the credit they deserved until much later, if at all.

Pioneers in Computing

In the early days of computing, women in America were calculating ordnance and trajectory tables using simple electromechanical calculators, while women in Britain were programming the very earliest electromechanical computers to decrypt messages from the Allied enemies. Both were involved in early computing and both were on a common mission to aid the Allies in winning the war. From these experiences came a pressing need to automate work and speed up calculations. The earliest electromechanical computers gave way to the first digital computers, and thankfully they became employed in business and commerce instead of war.

Thoughts

When you open your laptop or turn on your tablet or smartphone, I hope that you will consider the contributions of women and men in early computing. Room-sized computers have given way to pocket-sized devices, but not overnight and not without a lot of effort. It has been an incredible history and I look forward to the future.
Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

The Perils of Being Last

Road Closed sign in Death Valley“After 12 years, support for Windows XP will end on April 8, 2014. There will be no more security updates or technical support for the Windows XP operating system. It is very important that customers and partners migrate to a modern operating system such as Windows 8.1.”

So begins the official declaration on the Microsoft website. There are still many active instances of the Windows XP operating system, including one on my home PC. Should we be more worried about “no more security updates” or “no more technical support”? Which is likely to cause more pain, and should we decide to continue using the soon-to-be unsupported operating system?

ATMs

According to a recent article published by Retail Banking Research in London, “Virtually all ATMs around the world use a Windows operating system and many still use XP.” This could leave those ATMs subject to attack, should there be new security holes discovered in the XP operating system after April 8. While there are extended service contracts that customers can purchase, those only provide support and not new patches. Such contracts will also become increasingly expensive, thus are considered to be only a short-term solution. In the case of ATMs, the article mentions further security measures that are already deployed that will most likely thwart attacks while manufacturers and banks deal with upgrading their operating systems.

HIPAA Compliance

Does the Security Rule mandate minimum operating system requirements for the personal computer systems used by a covered entity?”

This was a recent question posed to the Office of Human Rights, the arm of the government charged with enforcing HIPAA and HITECH rulings and mandates. While the answer is vague, it does say:

“ … any known security vulnerabilities of an operating system should be considered in the covered entity’s risk analysis (e.g., does an operating system include known vulnerabilities for which a security patch is unavailable, e.g., because the operating system is no longer supported by its manufacturer).”

Taken to its logical conclusion, this means that after April 8, any computer system running Windows XP and generating or housing private patient information is not in compliance with HIPAA regulations. Do you have any vulnerable systems or do you know of any systems that could be out of compliance in the very near future? Do you have plans to remedy these soon?

Home Computers

According to market share statistics site netmarketshare.com, Windows XP is still running on 29 percent of desktop systems worldwide. The end-of-life/end-of-support for XP was announced by Microsoft in June 2008 through end user notifications, so why the reluctance? I don’t think that it is apathy as much as familiarity. Windows XP has been around for so long that it has become a trusted and—thanks to the additional service packs— stable operating system. Why change? Changing requires time and disruption to our normal routines, and the alternatives may not be that enticing. Do we switch to Windows 7 or the much maligned Windows 8, or are we still holding out for something better?

Thoughts

This blog is as much about change as it is about technology. I know that in my own life, I sometimes resist change until I am forced to face it head on, like in the case of increased security vulnerabilities in my operating system. To not change is comfortable and to change is hard. Sometimes, though, it is better and actually easier to change before we are the last one to do so.

I still have one last home PC on Windows XP. What do you recommend? Windows 7? Linux? Let me know your thoughts. I think it is time for me to change.

 

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

The Second Machine Age?

Steel robotic android hands holding blue digital earth I have been reading a book recently called The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. In this book, the authors project a future where mankind will work alongside increasingly sophisticated computers and machinery to create a better world. They tell a compelling story about the history of the industrial age leading up to the current technological age and describe our current time as the second machine age.

Others, however, are not so optimistic about our technological trajectory and where it is leading us economically. In 2003, economist Tyler Cowen wrote a book titled Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation in which he argues that technology has been and will continue dividing workers into two classes. Those workers that are proficient with such technology as computers and robotics will thrive, but those who are not will find themselves unemployed or underemployed. In the author’s defense, he does lay out strategies that can help the latter class to join in the prosperity.

My purpose for this blog post is to start a dialogue and hear your thoughts on the pace of technology changes and how they will affect our future and our economic system. Will technology lead us into a bright future or drive us into perennial unemployment?

The Second Half of the Chessboard

In their book, Brynjolfsson and McAfee refer to another publication, The Age of Spiritual Machines. The author, Ray Kurzweil, draws an analogy between the old story of the emperor and the inventor, and our current technology advancement. In the story, the inventor of chess negotiates with the emperor for payment for this new marvel. He asks only one grain of rice that doubles on each square of the chessboard. The emperor readily agrees, thinking that the inventor is indeed a humble man. By the time they reach thirty-two squares, he is up to 4 billion grains of rice. After that, they reach the second half of the chessboard where things get really interesting and will eventually reach 64 quintillion grains of rice.

This story is based on exponential increase, and the analogy is that we are just now entering the second half of the chessboard. If you thought that the pace of technology advancement was furious in the past, hang on for a wild ride in the future.

Thoughts

The questions still remain—will we benefit from technology or will we be run over by it? Will we be driving the bus or be passengers? I believe that it is up to us and how prepared we are. It is going to take work and constant learning to be in the driver’s seat. What do you think? Are you optimistic or are you worried? Can you keep up? Let me know your thoughts by replying to this post. I hope that we can start a conversation and figure this out together.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

 

The Beginning of the End of the World Wide Web?

Outline map of world overlaid with razor wireI wrote a blog post recently on the fallout of the revelations about the US National Security Agency (NSA) spying last year. One of my concerns at the time was the balkanization of the Internet. Balkanization is the process of drawing national borders around the Internet, much the same as physical borders. We would no longer have the World Wide Web, instead it would be broken up into the Web of Germany, the Web of Japan, the Web of Chile, and so on. This would be done to protect a nation from activity such as spying on another nation. National Internet traffic would stay within country boundaries and a strong national firewall would be constructed for traffic that had to move across the border. I have been reading stories the past week that have confirmed my fears: nations are slowly moving toward just such a model.

Germany

A recent article out of the UK reveals that Germany is floating plans for a European communications network meant to bypass the US and prevent spying by the NSA and the British counterpart, the GCHQ. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is quoted as saying:

“Above all we’ll talk about European providers that offer security to our citizens, so that one shouldn’t have to send e-mails and other information across the Atlantic, rather one could build up a communications network inside Europe.”

The Germans are particularly incensed by revelations last year that the Chancellor’s cell phone was monitored from the US Embassy in Berlin. This is just the beginning of a proposal, but it feels like the beginning of walls being built.

Brazil

According to a recent article in IEEE Spectrum, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is pushing legislation: “… to force Internet companies such as Google and Facebook to store local data within the country’s borders. She also wants to build submarine cables that don’t route through the United States, set up domestic Internet exchange points, and create an encrypted national e-mail service.” Now, those are not just switches and routers that would be directed inward but national cables would be off limits, too. In other words, Brazilian traffic could only flow over Brazilian cables.

China

The Great Firewall of China already exists; it restricts Chinese citizens’ access to the full Internet. There are censorship mechanisms in place to ensure that information going in and out of China meets government standards. The same filters are already in place in Russia although not to the same extent. India is also looking for ways to close the borders of the Internet. All of these efforts counter one of the basic premises of the Internet—the fact that it is open and accessible to all.

My Thoughts

I agree with a recent open letter to President Obama from Peter Singer and Ian Wallace of the Brookings Institute. They state in the letter:

“The sooner that we can articulate a clear, robust case for a U.S. vision for the future of the Internet, the better. And that needs to be one that, while acknowledging the natural shift away from U.S. control, makes both the pragmatic and principled arguments for preserving the values that have made the Internet such a successful driver of positive global economic, political and social change.”

The Internet is not US-centric, although history and some countries would suggest otherwise. It must remain an open exchange without borders, without censorship, and without state oversight. The whole metaphor of the “cloud” transcends borders and allows the Internet to operate efficiently and openly. Advancements in networking technology have allowed us to operate across the globe and I believe that it would be a giant step backwards to erect artificial barriers where they don’t belong.

Are you concerned about a splintering of the Internet? Let me know your thoughts.

 

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.