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Old School Email November 19, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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Technology matures, and expectations change.  Email, designed to be a slow, reliable messaging system, is now expected to be instantaneous.  I’ve seen people send an email and then pick up the phone to call to see if it had arrived!

Twenty-five years ago, email was a hodge-podge of technologies, linking wildly different systems using all sorts of connections.  Getting a message from here to there often required knowledge of your system, the recipient’s system, and all those in between.  Email might take days to arrive, and never made it in just a few seconds.  A well-connected site could get a message in a few hours, which was considered really good performance.

Our modern person@place.com addressing scheme masks a huge amount of complexity.  Your message may actually travel among many nodes on the network to get to its final destination, and individual pieces of your message may take different routes before being reassembled at the end.  You don’t worry about all of this, of course; you just click “Send” and magic happens.

This simplicity didn’t exist back then.  Instead, your email address changed depending on where the message originated.  In essence, your address was the route your message would take to get to where it was going.  Each stop along the way was named, separated by exclamation points (known as “bangs”).  Thus, the “bang path” for my email back in 1984 looked something like this:

...!gatech!mit!trantor!chuck

When the message arrived at the Georgia Tech server, it would be sent to the MIT server, which sent it to my server (trantor), which delivered it to me.  The “…” was important; you replaced it with whatever you needed to get from your machine to the Georgia Tech server.

You were expected to know what to put in place of that “…” and if you didn’t, tools existed to help you figure it out.  A vast database (ahem, “flat file”) listing every node in the network was sent around every so often.  For each node, you could see what other nodes they would connect to, and from that list you could construct a route for your message.  If your path to Georgia Tech was through kremvax and wustl, your address for me would be

kremvax!wustl!gatech!mit!trantor!chuck

You may wonder why every node didn’t just connect to every other node.  Another historical fact comes into play: phone calls used to cost money, charged by the minute and varying by the length and distance of the call.  Given tight budgets, each site would only call to other, nearby sites.  Cross-country calls were rare, especially for lengthy data transmissions.  Sending email overseas was almost unheard of.  Instead, you built a route of short hops, constrained by local phone charges, and hoped for the best

To further reduce costs, sites only dialed out every so often, and sometimes only at night.  After your message arrived at a site, it might sit for a day before the next scheduled transmission.  If that transmission failed, it would sit for another day before a retry occurred.  Mail moved, but it moved slowly.

As the modern internet began to grow, addresses began to merge.  You might use part of a bang path after sending to an internet host:

trantor!chuck@mit.edu

Networks were not completely interconnected, so you might route through a gateway between two networks:

chuck%trantor.harris-atd.com@gatech.edu

It was confusing, constantly changing, and not for the faint of heart.

In comparison, email today is easy. Back in the day, email had to go uphill, through the snow, both ways, all the time. But when mail got through, you felt like you had accomplished something!  So be thankful, and be patient. Try to wait at least ten minutes before calling to check on your latest urgent message.

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Another Ancient Artifact November 3, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings, Technology.
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I had another “really old” moment with my son the other day.  My first job out of college was with Harris Corporation, and I was explaining how Harris evolved from a company called Radiation.  Back in the 1950s, Radiation got its start building telemetry equipment for the space program.  I told my son that it was very clever technology for the time, capturing real-time data from rockets and recording it on magnetic tape.

And then I got the blank look.  “Magnetic tape?  What’s that?”

Certainly we haven’t reached this point with magnetic tape, have we?  I scrambled for some common point.  Finally I settled on cassette tapes.  “Remember how we used to have those cassette tapes?  The tape in them is magnetic tape.  It’s plastic, coated with iron oxide, and you can record data and music on it.  The telemetry was recorded on tape like that, but wider.”

My son nodded in understanding, but it was clear that this was a distant memory, at best.  And why not?  He grew up in the tail end of the CD era, the last physical media we’ll probably ever know.  He manages his data online, shuttled between various devices via networks both large and small.  He still likes to buy CDs for the cover art and liner notes, but immediately rips them to iTunes and puts the CD on his shelf.

I’m proud to report that I actually have a nine-track, 6250 bpi tape.  (That’s bits per inch, by the way.  Much denser than the old 1600 bpi tapes.)

When I moved from my first job at Harris (writing compilers) to my second (researching parallel computer architectures) I dumped all my mainframe programs to tape in case I would ever need them again.  Fat chance!  I’ve never read that tape, and I’ve never had a need for a crucial snippet of PL/I to complete a project.  But I still have that tape because, well, you never know if the need will arise.  Now, I just need to track down a nine-track, 6250 bpi tape reader.  And a matching channel controller for it.  And an IBM mainframe.  And a 3270 console.  Ebay, perhaps?

Head In The Clouds June 19, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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The latest rage in the world of IT is “cloud computing.”  The “cloud” is the internet, often represented as an all-connected puffy blob in countless network diagrams and PowerPoint presentations.

Cloud computing moves your applications away from your local servers and desktops and houses them on servers located in the cloud.  Managed by great, benevolent entities like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, your systems will run better and faster. As butterflies dance around your worry-free head, you’ll be able to focus on your “core competencies,” whatever they may be.

Hmmm.  Centralized computing services with local display technology.  Where have I heard of this before?  Oh, that’s right!  We used to call it “mainframe computing!”  And that local display technology?  A 3270 terminal!  In the ’80s, we built dedicated display devices called X Terminals and used them to connect to centralized servers, where we would run our applications.  In the ’90s, we deployed “thin client” devices, moving the storage to the server but shifting the computing power to the device.

Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

Still using any of these?  Of course not.  If we have learned one thing in the past 50 years of computing, it is that users demand more and more local power, control, and capability.  With that power they will do new and unforeseen things that will dramatically alter how we use information.  Every effort to pull that power in, to restrict what people do, has failed.  Trying to pull applications off the desktop and run them remotely may be possible technologically, but it will never succeed socially.

I say this even as I continuously try to standardize and manage a far-flung IT infrastructure for my company.  The difference?  I accept that there will be local applications and capabilities.  My standards seek to embrace and manage that local element, instead of trying to pull it back and eliminate it.

Don’t misunderstand: you can shift certain services and capabilities to the cloud with great success.  My company has outsourced several business processes to external service providers.  My personal data at home is backed up to an external service called Mozy, which works very well.  This blog runs on WordPress.com, instead of some server I manage myself.  My personal email is externally hosted as well.

The idea of moving all of my personal data to the cloud and accessing my applications there is incomprehensible.  Imagine doing everything (everything!) at the speed of your current internet connection.  I have several thousand photos on my laptop at home.  I manage them with Adobe Photoshop Elements, which provides a fast, high-fidelity interface that lets me flip through hundreds of pictures in a few seconds.  Ever tried that on the web?  Go to Flickr and try to preview a few hundred pictures.  That’s an enjoyable experience.  Now extend that to hundreds of documents that you’ll want to edit and manage.  No way.  Word and Excel are slow enough running locally; they (or their equivalent) will never be better at the other end of a long wire.

The speed problems aren’t the real problem. People like to use their computers anywhere, anytime.  High-speed connections are not pervasive, and your cloud computing experience is only pleasant at very high speeds.  It stops entirely when the connection breaks.  Cloud proponents are struggling to provide an offline equivalent of their services so you can keep working while disconnected.  Here’s a thought: since they cannot predict what you might want to do while offline, you’ll probably want to keep a copy of everything you need on your local machine.  You know, just in case.  And you’ll probably need to keep copies of the applications as well, so you can access your data.  After all, data is useless without the application.  Let’s see: local storage, local data, local application, local display and keyboard…  it’s like your own personal copy of the cloud, but you can use it anywhere, anytime.  We’ll call it… the Personal Computer!

A Slide What? May 15, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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My son and I were driving home from an errand last night, engaged in a typical Guy Discussion: the mechanics of building a nuclear weapon.  My son observed, correctly, that building an atomic bomb was easy; it was getting it to explode that was really hard.  The trick, I pointed out, was getting the right material in the right shape at the right time.1

My son asked how the first bomb designers did this.  I replied that while current designers use extensive computer simulation (which is why we design and build ever faster computers: bomb design and weather prediction), the original designers did it all by hand, with slide rules.

My son looked at me and asked, in all seriousness, “What’s that?”  I gave him an incredulous stare, completely at a loss for words.2 “No, really.  What is that?”  My son, 13, is an outstanding student, way ahead of the curve in math and science and currently fascinated with computer-aided bridge design.  He was asking an honest question.

“Umm, well, it’s a computing device.  It has three wooden sticks with numbers, and you slide them back and forth to line them up so that you can multiply and divide.  Nicer ones have extra scales for trig functions.”  To help bring this detailed description to life, I used my fingers to simulate the mechanical action of a slide rule.

I may as well have tried to describe some medieval leather tanning contraption or a turn-of-the-century gadget that trimmed lamp wicks.  For a teenager with his own cell phone, laptop, iPod Touch, and game console, the idea of a wooden calculator is either pathetic or hilarious.  I half-believe he thought I was making it all up just to tease him.

Sigh. Another cultural touch point has been reached.  Slide rules are officially ancient and unknown to the current generation.  Close on its heels are tape in any form (cassette, 8-track, reel-to-reel), followed by analog video.  Phones with cords aren’t far behind, either.  Time marches on.  Does it matter?  Yes and no.

In terms of the actual device, it doesn’t matter.  I have my father’s K&E Log Log Decitrig slide rule, a beautiful device that was given to him when he graduated college with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.  It was his most important tool on a daily basis and no practicing engineer could work without one.  It still works, although the slide sticks a bit.  Still, it has been completely replaced by calculators of all stripes and for good reason: slides rules are only accurate to a few digits and are slower to use.

In terms of how it works, the loss of “slide rule awareness” is devastating.  General math abilities in the US are at an all-time low.  No one knows how logarithms work, or why this might be important.  No one understands precision, accuracy, or error ranges any more.  As a result, people cannot interpret numerical data, understand relationships, or make informed decisions.  Even worse, it has become apparent that most people cannot compute percentages or interest rates on a loan.  A disturbing number of cashiers cannot compute the change from $20 in their head.

Not everyone should be able to use a slide rule.  But maybe if we tried to teach everyone to use one, a pleasant side effect might be that everyone would at least learn percentages, and subtraction, and the ability to discern “bad” numbers from “good.”  Such an education will never happen; we’d wind up with lots of people who feel bad about themselves because they failed the slide rule test, and that’s just not acceptable these days.  Instead, we’re building a nation full of happy idiots, lacking the basic skills to survive in a modern world but certainly feeling very good about themselves.

1How like life itself. See my next blog post for more on this.
2Those who know me can attest how shocking this situation is: I am never at a loss for words.

Leaving A Mark May 2, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Frequent readers know I am working my way through Team Of Rivals, a great account of Abraham Lincoln’s political career.  As I read it, I am struck by the detailed information available to us 150 years after these events unfolded.  For the most part, the book is drawn from newspaper accounts of the era and personal letters from the various people involved.  Even today, these archives are well-preserved and readily accessible to any interested parties.

I think it will be impossible write such a book about our current world 150 years from now.  While we are recording more data in more ways than ever before, we are recording it in ways that are transient and unstable.  I haven’t written a real letter, on real paper, in 25 years.  I haven’t saved a letter I have received in the past 25 years.  No one will ever rummage through my attic, long after I am gone, and turn up a trove of letters, bound with ribbon and unlocking the secrets of my time.

What you might find would be utterly useless, even today.  I have a reel of 9-track tape that holds all the code I wrote at my first job, between 1982 and 1985.  I have floppy disks with old files, both 5.25″ and 3.5″, that are completely inaccessible to me now.  On my laptop are copies of my address book from a previous job, cleverly stored in the Novell Address Book format.  Lots of data, stories to be told, lost to the ages.  Over my career, I’ve posted thousands of articles to dozens of Usenet newsgroups, and posted a weekly movie ratings report to rec.arts.movies for five years.  Perhaps two dozen of these posts still survive in remote corners of the Usenet archives on the web.  I ran a web site for six years, and wrote weekly columns for three other sites for almost ten years.  Again, all gone, deleted without a second thought when those sites were shuttered.  Even these blog entries will be gone without a trace in twenty years.

My father has half-a-dozen original photos of my ancestors in Italy, taken between 1880 and 1905.  They have survived over 100 years, passed from generation to generation as precious heirlooms, given the appropriate care that such a rare artifact deserves.  In my children’s hands, they will survive another 70 years before being turned over to the next generation with a similar admonishment to take care of them.  I also have over 5,000 photos taken over the past ten years, stored as JPEG images on my laptop and carefully archived using Adobe Photo Album.  Does anyone really believe that these photos will be accorded the same care?  Will someone copy them from media to media every few years, converting them to some new format as needed?  When my son takes out the photo of his great-great-great-grandmother in 50 years, will he be able to look at those photos from our church retreat last weekend just as easily?  I doubt it.

I worry that we are not leaving a mark, a tangible reminder of our thoughts and dreams and lives.  Lincoln’s letters (and those of his contemporaries) are filled with deep thoughts, emotions, and dreams.  They are transcribed conversations that reflect what people were doing across a period of years.  What are we leaving behind?  Facebook pages?  YouTube videos?  A thousand unrelated tweets on Twitter?  Lots of data, very little content, all in a format that is exceedingly perishable.  In the end, the most connected generation may leave behind the smallest useful footprint of our daily lives.

I don’t have a solution to this.  Should we all start writing letters?  It makes my hand hurt just to think about it.  Convert everything to paper hard copy?  I don’t have the space to store it all, and I wonder how long the ink would last before fading away.

I think it is important to leave a mark, large or small, one way or another.  Perhaps the mark we leave, like that of Lincoln, transcends the paper and photos and is truly captured by the lives we touch and affect for all the years to come.  In that regard, we should all live our lives in the hope that we could touch even a fraction of those impacted by Lincoln and that 100 years from now, someone would still know our name.