Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Clusters and E.T.

BlueGene/LToday's most powerful computers rely on a series of processors working in tandem, also known as cluster computing. According to the Top 500, the BlueGene/L holds the honor as the fastest computer currently in use. The BlueGene/L is actually made up of over 65,000 computers with 131,072 processors capable of running at 367,000 GFlops (billions of floating point computations per second). Its primary purpose is the testing and maintenance of nuclear weapons. In order for a computer to be considered for the Top 500, it must be run against the High Performance Linpack Benchmark and solve a random and dense series of linear equations.

E.T.Cluster computing has been around since the early 1960s, but it wasn't until the development of UNIX and TCP/IP (circa 1973) that the idea of instant supercomputers came into effect. Programs like Beowulf and Parallel Virtual Machine have made it possible for many computers to join resources. One of the largest projects is SETI@Home where users can allow their computer's spare cycles to search radio transmissions from space. This effort is totally collaborative and the "payoff" is that your home computer may be the one to discover extraterrestrial life. Cluster computing is a more efficient and cost effective alternative to the giant supercomputers of the past.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

News Flash 1982

Bits and BytesApple, Commodore, and Tandy computers are taking the world by storm. Games! Music! Word Processing! It all seems so perfect until everyone starts scratching their heads and saying, "Well, now how the heck do these things work?" The solution for a lot people came in the form of the 12 part educational TV show called Bits and Bytes. Starring Billy Van and Luba Goy, Bits and Bytes was dedicated to the usage of 8-bit home computers.

In this clip, Billy is introduced to the computer's microprocessor. Even today, Bits and Bytes can still be useful for someone who wants to learn about the components and functions of a home computer. Billy and Luba empowered an entire generation to take part in the home computing revolution.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Malware, Hackers, and Zombies - Oh My!

In a recent lecture at Oxford, Dr. David Clark teasingly mentioned a phenomenon known as the Internet Zombie...

Zombie Infection CycleMalware is malicious code that a hacker designs to hide in a remote computer. Once infected the computer becomes part of a network, called a botnet, which the hacker can control remotely. Zombie computers will continue to infect more and more computers until the hacker has amassed an army. In 2005, Dutch police foiled a major botnet operation that controlled over 1.5 million computers!

Zombie OnslaughtOnce under the hacker's control, zombies can be used to do all sorts of naughty things, like spamming and clogging. Spamming is when email address are slammed with tons of unsolicited email. It is estimated that 50-80% of all spam is distributed by computers on botnets. Clogging occurs when a hacker uses his botnet to flood the bandwidth of one or more web servers. In 2000, Yahoo and eBay were clogged to a standstill because of an attack by a 13-year old hacker in Kansas.

Don't let your computer become on of the walking dead. Use antivirus software!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"The only winning move is not to play."

When I was growing up, there were two reasons why computers were so darn cool: Thermonuclear War and Lisa. As a result, I spent countless hours in front of my Commodore 64 trying to hack my way into government mainframes. First, I was going to challenge a supercomputer to a game of "tic-tac-toe" and then I was going to use its processing power to generate a computer-simulated supermodel.

Right now, you are probably thinking one of two things: Either this guy has lost his marbles or it's time to hit up Netflicks and rent WarGames and Weird Science. In the early 1980s, Hollywood was making millions while riding the wave created by the new home-computing industry. So today, I thought we'd take a short trip through Silicon Valley's heyday on the Silver Screen.

WarGames (1983)

Vintage Handset ModemWargames starred Matthew Broderick as a high school student who made up for his poor grades by breaking into the school's computer system and making the "appropriate" adjustments. When not fixing his grades, he was using his modem to seek out bulletin board systems (BBS) to play online games. The BBS was the precursor to the World Wide Web where a phone line called directly into another computer. Once logged in, you could upload and download files, play games, and check out the messaging system.

Anyway, Matthew finds a computer that he cannot access. After doing some investigating, he discovers a backdoor into the system and challenges the computer to a game of “thermonuclear war”. Matthew thinks that he is just playing another video game, but what he doesn’t know is that he has logged into NORAD's nuclear missile system.

War GamesUsing backdoors, WarGames fed into fears people had about the security of computer systems. A backdoor is a programming flaw that allows a user to gain remote access to a host computer. Wargames also provided a platform for the new breed of explorer known as the hacker. Anyway, I am not going to spoil the ending, but it is well worth the rental!

Weird Science (1985)

LisaWiley and Gary were two high school nerds that had zero luck with the ladies. So one day, they decide to use their desktop computer to hack into the Pentagon's mainframe and make a graphic rendering of the perfect woman. Of course, as they were hacking into the computer a freak electrical storm hits the power lines and the rendering comes to life in the form of Lisa, played by Kelly LeBrock. Yada yada yada - Hilarity ensues. If you haven't seen Weird Science, you need to stop reading this and rent it immediately.

Lisa Screen ShotVintage computer junkies will take note of two other tidbits. First, Lisa was actually named after Apple Computer's LISA, or Local Integrated Software Architecture. The LISA made use of one of the earliest graphical user interfaces, or GUI. A graphical user interface provided the user with icons and pointers to interact rather than a completely text based operating system. The LISA was also one of the first computers to offer virtual memory in which the hard drive could be allocated for additional RAM.

MTX512 Fully LoadedAstute viewers will notice that Wiley's computer is a Memotech MTX512 with the additional FDX peripheral. At the time, the MT512 was capable of pretty advanced visuals with its high-resolution 16-color graphic display. The FDX also provided a floppy and hard drive, which cost a small fortune when it was released. Is the MTX512 still strong enough to break into a government supercomputer? Debatable. Can it still create super models? Well, I sure hope so!

WarGames and Weird Science - Still providing hope after all these years.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Think Different

April 1976 - The Birth of the Apple I

Apple ISteve "iWoz" Wozniak, Steve Jobs, and Ron Wayne were the masterminds of a revolution when they formed Apple Computers. In the early days of computing, most home computers were available to users as "build-it-yourself" kits. Apple Computers, on the other hand, were among the first to offer the public fully assembled personal computers. "Fully assembled" by 1970s standards meant that the user was still required to add two individual power supplies, an ASCII keyboard, and a monitor.

Boot-Up TapeOriginally priced at $666.66 because of Wozniak's love for repeating decimals, the Apple I was loaded with a 1MHz/8-bit processor and 4 KiB (4096 bytes) of RAM. Some of the options available included RAM card upgrades and a cassette interface board. Today, fewer than 50 of the 200 original hand built Apple I computers are known to exist.

June 2006: The Birth of the Replica I

Assembly Language Vince Briel is an owner and enthusiast of the Apple I. His passion for vintage computers has led to the Replica I, a fully functional clone of the Apple I's motherboard. Although somewhat smaller and built with many modern parts, the heart of the Replica I is the same MOS Technology 6502 microprocessor that resided in the original. Best of all, iWoz has given his blessing to the entire project. So today, with a little soldering skill and an understanding of the archaic Assembly Language, you too can now enjoy a little piece of history!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

VisiCalc Revolution

I love retro/old-technology computers, like the Apple II and C-64. One of the cool parts of Discovering Computers 2008 is a small section called Technology Trailblazers which brings to mention the early days of computing. In chapter 3 it mentions Dan Bricklin and his program, VisiCalc, which was one of the earliest spreadsheet programs. VisiCalc was originally written for the Apple II platform and as a result these computers were found in businesses all over the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Possibly, without VisiCalc, there would not be the Apple computers of today.

VisiCalc SreenshotDan's Webpage is a great resource. It shows old screenshots of VisiCalc in action. You will notice that Excel was developed with VisiCalc as its guiding light. Dan was not able to copyright his program, but you'll have to visit his page to find out why. It is also full of podcasts, feeds, and other little goodies, but its not technology heavy making it very easy to navigate.

Today, Dan runs a software company called Software Garden and he has just released an open source version of a new spreadsheet program, called wikiCalc. I know very little about programming, but my interest has been piqued as a result of LIS 2600. I hope to explore it a lot further and may use wikiCalc as a vital part of that learning process.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007