Archive for September, 2004

Mechanical Pong!

A German computer science student has built an electromechanical version of the iconic video game, Pong! In a tribute to computing pioneers, Niklas Roy renounced the use of semiconductors, transistors and the like, building a form of computer out of old telephone relays to handle the logic. The game has identical user features to the electronic original – the display is the same black field with a white “ball” and two paddles, control is by joystick, points are counted up by two counters, and it goes – well – “pong!”

The workings are obscenely complicated, as the game is actually played twice – once by an intricate assembly that contains the actual bats and balls, and then again by the markers on the display that represent their movement. It’s a fine reminder of just how insanely difficult anything like this was until comparatively recently. Some very serious things were done, though – the RAF experimented with a computer constructed from telephone exchange technology to calculate interception vectors from radar data in the 1930s, until Henry Tizard realised that a simple mental method would do better. Later, at the end of the 1960s, the Hawker Siddeley Trident airliner had a crude moving-map navigation display, portraying information from radio-navigation instruments as a position on a chart. Unlike today’s systems, though, “moving map” should be read literally – it was an actual paper chart on rollers, which unsurprisingly frequently tore or tangled.

What Roy’s mechanical video game reminds me of most of all, though, is the very dawn of computing. In action (you can find the video here) it looks like nothing other than a power loom. The very first data processing machine, of course, was Jacquard’s loom with its patterns on punched cards, that inspired Charles Babbage. The cards, of course, remained a current form of data storage until relatively recently.

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Mechanical Pong!

A German computer science student has built an electromechanical version of the iconic video game, Pong! In a tribute to computing pioneers, Niklas Roy renounced the use of semiconductors, transistors and the like, building a form of computer out of old telephone relays to handle the logic. The game has identical user features to the electronic original – the display is the same black field with a white “ball” and two paddles, control is by joystick, points are counted up by two counters, and it goes – well – “pong!”

The workings are obscenely complicated, as the game is actually played twice – once by an intricate assembly that contains the actual bats and balls, and then again by the markers on the display that represent their movement. It’s a fine reminder of just how insanely difficult anything like this was until comparatively recently. Some very serious things were done, though – the RAF experimented with a computer constructed from telephone exchange technology to calculate interception vectors from radar data in the 1930s, until Henry Tizard realised that a simple mental method would do better. Later, at the end of the 1960s, the Hawker Siddeley Trident airliner had a crude moving-map navigation display, portraying information from radio-navigation instruments as a position on a chart. Unlike today’s systems, though, “moving map” should be read literally – it was an actual paper chart on rollers, which unsurprisingly frequently tore or tangled.

What Roy’s mechanical video game reminds me of most of all, though, is the very dawn of computing. In action (you can find the video here) it looks like nothing other than a power loom. The very first data processing machine, of course, was Jacquard’s loom with its patterns on punched cards, that inspired Charles Babbage. The cards, of course, remained a current form of data storage until relatively recently.

Interesting follow up in the light of my recent post.

“Three British soldiers were killed, one of them in a two-and-a-half-hour battle in downtown Basra that resembled the movie “Black Hawk Down,” Wilde said.

“That made it just absolutely clear that the middle of the city was under Sadr militia control,” Wilde said.

British troops, however, held back, choosing to nibble at the edges of militant strongholds rather than risk massive civilian casualties in an all-out assault.

“It was very hard to take for the blokes,” Wilde said. “They’d lost some mates and were very ready to roll the place up.”

Analysis: this may be another explanation for Jackson’s trip to Iraq recently, as well as trying to relieve discontent over the decision that at least one soldier will be prosecuted by the civilian authorities over a shooting in Basra.

Hometown Blog

Yorkshire Soul of Ilkley, thanks for the link.

Interesting follow up in the light of my recent post.

“Three British soldiers were killed, one of them in a two-and-a-half-hour battle in downtown Basra that resembled the movie “Black Hawk Down,” Wilde said.

“That made it just absolutely clear that the middle of the city was under Sadr militia control,” Wilde said.

British troops, however, held back, choosing to nibble at the edges of militant strongholds rather than risk massive civilian casualties in an all-out assault.

“It was very hard to take for the blokes,” Wilde said. “They’d lost some mates and were very ready to roll the place up.”

Analysis: this may be another explanation for Jackson’s trip to Iraq recently, as well as trying to relieve discontent over the decision that at least one soldier will be prosecuted by the civilian authorities over a shooting in Basra.

Hometown Blog

Yorkshire Soul of Ilkley, thanks for the link.

D’you think they’ll fire a special commemorative bullet for the 100,000th shot fired in a month in the British zone of Iraq? Like they used to with the 100,000th (or whatever) car to run off a production line? The BBC has an excellent story here which, among other things, points out that the British battalion in Amara (1st Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment – “Camilla’s Killers”)was involved in 853 contacts in the month. The British Army has not engaged in such sustained combat since the Korean War.

This doesn’t suggest it will get any better. More broadly, the Government has been throwing off mixed signals about the future lines of policy in Iraq lately – last week, Geoff Hoon suggested that the number of British troops might be substantially reduced at the next relief, due in November. But, during the weekend, the Independent on Sunday reported, quoting Chief of the General Staff General Sir Mike Jackson, that a major British deployment to Afghanistan was in prospect for the beginning of 2005, probably involving the NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps HQ, a British infantry brigade and supports, plus other NATO contingents. A figure of 8,000 UK personnel was given. Jackson also suggested that this could be done without prejudice to the Iraq operation, as long as it was “a one off”. “Sources” further said that some 1,000 troops might be sent out as a reinforcement to Iraq. This is an unremarkable claim, as the Army always maintains one battalion group (the Spearhead group) on high readiness to reinforce British units on operations overseas – if things were to go badly in southern Iraq, this force would be available.

At the same time, conflicting rumours have filtered out from the States. It is suggested either that a major offensive is being planned to retake Fallujah, Ramadi and other towns, involving a large reserve call-out timed to occur after the election (well..), or that perhaps the US Government is considering an early scuttle from Iraq. No-one seems as yet to have suggested both, so I might as well start this hare running myself. Expect the US to announce a large mobilisation immediately post-election in the event of a Bush win, to invade Fallujah, Sadr City, and Ramadi en masse to Finish the Job, and then to withdraw all forces by spring. (For International Relations/Strategic Studies/History geeks – they might even call it DUCK HOOK II.)

There is absolutely no reason to believe this, but the fact it sounds about as likely as all the other options they really are suggesting tells us what we need to know. They literally don’t know what to do.

How George Dubya Won The Lottery Game For GTech Interesting Greg Palast story on former National Lottery operator GTech, and how Dubya avoided the war.

“Why did the Texas government work so hard at saving GTech’s licence? An unsigned letter to the US Justice Department, which was evidence in the civil suit, points to one lobbyist to whom GTech paid fees of $23 million (£14.2 million) – Barnes.

The letter accuses Barnes of using his knowledge of Bush’s draft-dodging to lock in GTech’s exclusive deal with Texas. In court papers filed in a racketeering suit brought by discharged regulator Littwin, Barnes concedes steps one and two: he got Bush into the Guard; and he received millions from GTech.”

Interested? Why not read the rest….

“Reform consisted of shuffling the organisation chart and changing the name to NatLot. The Texas Model remained in place, as did GTech. How did that happen? Let us just call it Texminster, a combination of telepathy and coincidence common to the politics of two continents.”

Reviewing the vexed topic of the Viktor Bout contracts with the US military…it strikes me that we can draw some parallels between reports. Doug Farah reported that one of the contracts was given to Jetline and subcontracted to Skylink (Farah). The original fuel contracts (to BGIA and Air Bas) make no mention of either Jetline or Skylink, however there is a third “TBTC” contract, TBTC01, for a firm called Sky Traffic Facilitators with an address in Sharjah. It seems likely that there is some connection with the other two. Now – if we consider that each of the fuel contracts matches one contractor and hence at least one contract – this suggests that at least 3 contracts exist. One involves British Gulf International Airlines, one Air Bas, and one Jetline/Skylink. Is it possible that Sky Traffic, a charter broker, were responsible for setting up this latter contract?

Another explanation would be that the Ilyushin 62 variously registered EL-ALM, 3C-QQR, or 5A-DKT, serial no. 4648414, which seems to have been used first (as EL-ALM) by Jetline and then transferred to Air Bas (as 3C-QQR), before returning to Jetline as 5A-DKT, was involved, and Jetline was acting as a front for Air Bas, a much more notorious operation. If the aircraft was transferred to AB, then it would have been AB buying fuel in the UAE – either in reality or because the aircraft had been operated by them all along.

Smoking memos

It’s just a pity when the Torygraph gets the dirt about the lead-up to war with Iraq before the rest of us. A cache of documents leaked to the rag show that, as early as March, 2003, Tony Blair’s foreign policy adviser Sir David Manning (a performer in the Hutton inquiry, if you recall) was able to tell Condoleeza Rice that the prime minister

“would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a parliament and a public opinion that was very different from anything in the States.”

The next day, the British ambassador in Washington reported to Manning that

“We backed regime change but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option.”

(You can get the quotes here, but the Torygraph requires a tiresome info-grabbing registration process)

Now, we have already seen plenty of evidence that decisions had been taken long before the dossiers appeared. After all, back in March, I reported on the Commons Defence Committee’s report on the war with Iraq, and specifically the fact that the MoD had been discussing the question of UORs – Urgent Operational Requirements, a procedure for buying extra kit needed for an, er, urgent operational requirement in a hurry – as early as May, 2002. (Linky) Also, General John Reith, chief of joint operations in the Permanent Joint HQ, Northwood, stated that he became aware of planning in May although the UK only became involved later (but had already begun buying more kit? Eh?). Planning is said to have “crystallised” in the summer. The mysterious White House Iraq Group, also involved in the Valerie Plame case was established in August, as was Ali C’s Iraq Communications Group.

Was the clever plan, in effect, to have Tony Blair act as PR man for a war with Iraq, using his excellent spin team and coordinating through the Coalition Information Centre staff?