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MIT TechTV

More On the Apollo Guidance Computer from 1965

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MIT TechTV

Earlier this week I brought you a 2008 documentary about the computer that put men on the moon -- the "Apollo Guidance Computer," or AGC. Today, let's look at a 1965 documentary about that same computer, shot at MIT. According to MIT TechTV:

This 1965 “Science Reporter” television program features the Apollo guidance computer and navigation equipment, which involve less than 60 lbs of microcircuits and memory cores. Scientists and engineers Eldon Hall, Ramon Alonzo and Albert Hopkins (of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory) and Jack Poundstone (Raytheon Space Division in Waltham MA) explain and demonstrate key features of the instruments, and detail project challenges such as controlling the trajectory of the spacecraft, the operation of the onboard telescope, and the computer construction and its memory. The program was presented by MIT in association with WGBH-TV Boston, and hosted by MIT reporter John Fitch; it was produced for NASA. MIT Museum Collections. [MIT Museum Cat. # UNNUMBERED-650)

For an on-the-ground view of what this computer really looked like in the 1960s, check this out. It's amazing, and has a bit of a Lost DHARMA Initiative film vibe. The segment about 25 minutes in (about making the wire-wrap boards) is particularly intense, as you realize just how difficult it was to make something so complex with the available technology. The block diagram shown around 10 minutes in is also remarkable, partly because of the lengths the presenter goes to to explain how computers work at all.

You can actually download the documentary for free direct from MIT (download links on the right). The audio in the MIT version is a bit better.

(Via Kottke.)

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Wi-Fi 101: How to Tell If Your Connection is Not Private
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Free and readily-accessible Wi-Fi is just about everywhere these days, including cafes, hotels, airports, bars, offices, subway stations, and even public parks. But how do you know that the network you're using will keep your personal information protected? While most wireless routers and laptops have built-in firewall protections, just about anyone connected to the same network could peer into your device and view your activity without you even knowing it, even when you're online in the comfort of your very own home.

Fortunately, most modern browsers—including Apple’s Safari, Microsoft Edge, and Google Chrome—have privacy features built-in, but every now and then an error message stating something like “Your Connection Is Not Private” may pop up on your browser and prevent you from visiting an unsafe website (which doesn't necessarily mean a website or your connection is corrupted; there are multiple reasons why this error warning can be triggered). There are a few ways to tell whether your connection is secure from hackers who want your passwords, credit card information, or other information you want to keep private.

First off, make sure you see a padlock icon next to the Wi-Fi icon in your computer's toolbar or, if you're using Windows, that there is a security type mentioned in the “Security” tab to make sure you’re on a password-protected and private network. And before you part with any money or passwords online, make sure you see

https://” instead of the commonly used “http://” at the beginning of the URL, which is an easy way to make sure you're on a secure site. You can also look for a closed padlock icon on the browser toolbar itself; this is an extra layer of protection that verifies websites as legitimate and uncompromised, and encrypts your personal info from end-to-end, so that hackers can’t read it.

Most Internet browsers also have a private or incognito browsing feature under the “File” tab, which automatically clears your browsing and search history and doesn't store Internet cookies for tracking services or ad targeting. While this feature “hides” your web activity, it doesn't make you invisible from internet service providers, employers, or the websites themselves.

Although it might enable your device to “talk” to other internet-enabled devices in your home or office, like a printer, you also want to turn off sharing on your laptop once you’re in public. Sharing can allow anyone on your Wi-Fi network to access files and folders on your device.

On a PC, open the “Control Panel,” click “Network and Internet,” and then “Choose Change Advanced Sharing Settings.” From here you can turn off file and printer sharing. Furthermore, laptops running Windows 10 can enable a “Make This PC Discoverable” feature to set it from public to private. On a Mac, go to “System Preferences” and then “Sharing” and make sure all checkboxes are unchecked.

In addition, you can enable a firewall to block unauthorized access into your computer, while you can communicate with the outside world via the Internet. On a PC, fire up the “Control Panel,” and then click “System and Security” to enable a firewall. On a Mac, launch “System Preferences,” and then go to “Security & Privacy” to turn it on.

Lastly, consider using a virtual private network (VPN) when browsing the Internet. While turning off sharing and enabling a firewall might prevent hackers from looking into your laptop, a VPN can block an Internet provider, including Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner, from knowing which websites you visit through your IP address altogether (although some VPN companies have been known to sell your browsing history). Services like Project Tor can mask that information by bouncing it around through a series of random servers—each with its very own IP address—from all around the world. So instead of sending web info from your laptop in Cicero, Illinois to a server in Chicago, a VPN would send that same info from Cicero to New York City to Amsterdam to Kuwait City to Manila to Los Angeles and then to Chicago.

There are also a few smaller things you can do to keep your Wi-Fi connection private, such as clearing your browsing data every few days or weeks, changing your passwords with a password manager like LastPass or Zoho Vault, and keeping your Wi-Fi turned off when you’re not using it. Luckily, most modern Internet browsers are really prompt about sending updates and patches to fix bugs and security breaches, but the best thing you can do is to stay vigilant and not join any open or sketchy Wi-Fi networks around you.

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Watch How Computers Perform Optical Character Recognition
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Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is the key technology in scanning books, signs, and all other real-world texts into digital form. OCR is all about identifying a picture of written language (or set of letters, numbers, glyphs, you name it) and sorting out what specific characters are in there.

OCR is a hard computer science problem, though you wouldn't know it from its current pervasive presence in consumer software. Today, you can point a smartphone at a document, or a sign in a national park, and instantly get a pretty accurate OCR read-out...and even a translation. It has taken decades of research to reach this point.

Beyond the obvious problems—telling a lowercase "L" apart from the number "1," for instance—there are deep problems associated with OCR. For one thing, the system needs to figure out what font is in use. For another, it needs to sort out what language the writing is in, as that will radically affect the set of characters it can expect to see together. This gets especially weird when a single photo contains multiple fonts and languages. Fortunately, computer scientists are awesome.

In this Computerphile video, Professor Steve Simske (University of Nottingham) walks us through some of the key computer science challenges involved with OCR, showing common solutions by drawing them out on paper. Tune in and learn how this impressive technology really works:

A somewhat related challenge, also featuring Simske, is "security printing" and "crazy text." Check out this Computerphile video examining those computer science problems, for another peek into how computers see (and generate) text and imagery.

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