Down-Sizing for Real

September 29, 2009

I’ve talked before about how technology, like music players and cell phones, has gotten smaller, lighter, and more capable during the last two or three decades.  But to really appreciate how far we’ve come, it’s sometimes useful to look back further still.

I have recently been re-reading Alan Turing: The Enigma, the wonderful biography of Turing by Andrew Hodges, and was struck by a short passage about some then-state-of-the-art equipment.  During World War II, in early 1943, Turing made a visit to the US, in part to help coordinate use of the signals intelligence gained from the breaking of the German Enigma encryption, and in part to explore and assist with some new communications security projects.  One of these, being carried out at Bell Laboratories, was to produce a secure voice telephony system for communication between the United States and the United Kingdom.  In those days there were no submarine fiber-optic cables, so trans-Atlantic telephone calls had to go via radio, making them vulnerable to interception.

A system was developed, based on a technology called Vocoder originally developed at Bell Labs in the mid-1930s.   This system used digitized samples of the audio signal, taken at different frequencies with an early form of pulse-code modulation, to produce an intelligible digital voice signal that required only about 300 Hz of bandwidth.  The Bell Labs scientists had developed an encryption system, “System X”, which Turing inspected.  It was very far from being a model of miniaturization:

A terminal occupied over 30 of the standard 7-foot relay rack mounting bays, required about 30 kW of power to operate, and needed complete air conditioning in the large room housing it.

The device wasn’t terribly energy-efficient; all that input power produced about 1 milliwatt of encrypted audio output.  The great news, though, was that the system actually worked,so that FDR and Churchill were able to talk on the phone as the war developed.

Party Time, Microsoft Style

September 29, 2009

As I mentioned in a post a few days ago, sometimes I almost feel sorry for Microsoft.   But fortunately, they usually do something that helps me snap right out of it.

Microsoft is preparing for the launch of the next version of its Windows® operating system, Windows 7, on October 22.  This involves the usual flurry of press releases and so on, but this time there’s a new twist.   Apparently some bright spark in the marketing group decided that encouraging people to hold Windows 7 “Launch Parties” would be the latest, greatest thing in viral marketing.  People who signed up to have a party (yes, the theory was that people would volunteer to do this, and would not have to be taken before a judge and sentenced) could get a Launch Party Kit containing (I am not making this up):

  • One limited Signature Edition Windows® 7 Ultimate
  • One Deck of Playing Cards with Windows® 7 Desktop Design
  • One Puzzle with Windows® 7 Desktop Design
  • One Poster with Windows® 7 Desktop Design
  • Ten Tote Bags with Windows® 7 Desktop Design for hosts and guests
  • One table top centerpiece for decoration
  • One package of Windows® 7 napkins

Apparently, at least some US customers also got streamers and balloons.   (I have been unable to confirm that the centerpiece is a marzipan sculpture of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer holding a Blue Screen of Death.)

Microsoft has even released a promotional video on YouTube, with helpful hints on staging your very own party.   Featuring four of the most desperately untalented actors ever seen (although in a politically-correct assortment), it is chock-full of really good ideas; for example, you should plan to install Windows 7 a “couple of days” before the party, so you have time to play with it (or, as we say in English, try to get it to work).

Ian Douglas, a blogger for the Daily Telegraph, wrote:

I’m beginning to think that no one involved with Microsoft’s advertising has ever left the house or spoken to a real person.

Rob Pegoraro at the Washington Post also has a post on the video:

By two minutes into the video, I could only hold my head in my hands, cringing and saying, “No, no, no, this can’t possibly be real!” before giggling helplessly at how high these six minutes and 14 seconds of video ranked on the Unintentional Comedy Scale.

And Charlie Brooker of the Guardian wonders whether Microsoft’s robots or the Brotherhood of the Mac is worse.

If you are a real glutton for this sort of thing, there are also several dozen companion videos on YouTube that illustrate “fun activities” you can do at your Launch Party.  On second thought, maybe I’ll just have a “Lose Your Lunch” party instead.

%d bloggers like this: