Saturday 12 December, 2020

A song for Brexit

By Amanda Palmer, Sarah-Louise Young & Maxim Melton.


Well, sometimes the only thing to do is laugh. And this is lovely.

Quote of the Day

“Worst damn fool mistake I ever made was letting myself be elected Vice President of the United States. Should have stuck as Speaker of the House. gave up the second most important job in Government for eight long years as Roosevelt’s spare tire.”

John Garner, VP under FDR 1933-41.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Schubert Ständchen | Camille Thomas and Beatrice Berrut


Long Read of the Day

Birds and Frogs in Physics

Delightful essay by Ashutosh Jogalekar in 3 Quarks Daily

I’ve always been captivated by Isiaih Berlin’s famous distinction (which he got from an Ancient Greek philosopher) about there being two kinds of thinker — hedgehogs (who know only one big thing) and foxes (who know many little things). On that scale, I’m a fox. But when I was thinking about this (and the relevant meditation is in my lockdown diary) it occurred to me that I know people who are sometimes hedgehogs and sometimes foxes.

This essay is an elegant disquisition on an analogous dichotomy proposed by Freeman Dyson, who argued that science thrives on the interplay between birds, who “look at the big picture and survey the landscape from a great height”, and frogs, who “love playing around in the mud of specific problems, delighting in finding gems”. Newton and Einstein were birds. Hubble and Fermi were frogs. But Planck was a frogbird.

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did

Norman Abramson, surfer (and pioneer of wireless networking) RIP

Norman Abramson, who built the world’s first packet-switched wireless network, has died at the age of 88. Steve Lohr has written a nice obit in the New York Times. I first came across him when I was doing the research for my history of the Internet. When the ARPAnet (the precursor of the modern Internet) was being designed in the late 1960s it used telephone landlines to connect its nodes. But Norman was a professor at the University of Hawaii and decided that the connection between his node and the network would have to be a wireless one. With Frank Kuo, a former Bell Labs scientist who came to the University of Hawaii the same year as him (1966) he built such a network.

The design challenge they faced was how to enable multiple devices to reliably to send and receive data packets over a shared radio channel. The key innovation Abramson and Kuo came up with was to divide the data into packets which could be re-sent if the data was lost during transmission, allowing for random access rather than sequential access to the channel. The resulting radio network technology they developed was deployed as ALOHAnet in 1971. The name derived from Aloha, a Hawaiian greeting.

It proved to be a fruitful idea. In 1972, Bob Metcalfe was working in the Computer Science Lab in Xerox’s PARC, trying to design a wired system for connecting the computers and other devices (for example, laser printers) that the PARC team were building at the time. He came on a 1970 paper by Abramson outlining the idea for sending and re-sending, got in touch with him and was invited to spend a month with at the University of Hawaii. From that came two things: one was Metcalfe’s PhD thesis, which was about ALOHAnet; the other was one of the key features of the Ethernet networking system that Metcalfe then co-invented at PARC with Dave Boggs, Chuck Thacker and Butler Lampson. A central idea in the technology was what the inventors called carrier sense multiple access with collision detection (CSMA/CD); this is what enabled devices to communicate on a shared wire without the earlier system (developed by IBM, I think) of a rotating ‘token’ that a device had to capture before it was allowed to send.)

The reason Abramson wound up at the University of Hawaii was wonderfully serendipitous: during a stop-over on a flight from Tokyo he rented a surf-board, learned to surf, was transfixed by the experience and decided he wanted to work somewhere where he could combine communications research with surfing. For many subsequent years, he surfed every single day.

The Computer History Museum had an event to mark the 50th anniversary of ALOHAnet . They recorded a lovely video in which Abramson and Kuo tell the story of how they built the network. It’s over an hour long, so probably only for those for whom the history of the Internet is their thing. Needless to say, I loved it.

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