Category Archives: Software

The rise and fall of the Gopher protocol

When I first encountered what we now call the Internet, it was called NSFnet and was run by the National Science Foundation (although references to the ARPAnet still abounded). Finding information or any kind of file was difficult at best unless you already knew where it was stored. My grad school was connected, as were most universities, but we didn’t have DNS set up so you actually had to use IP numbers to specify hosts to connect to. It was the opposite of user-friendly.

By 1992 the governing committee of the Internet realized it needed a better way to connect this growing network to its users. Among the contenders was the Gopher protocol that was created by programmers at the University of Minnesota.

Gopher did very, very well for a while, greatly exceeding Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web, one of the others proposed. Then the University decided to charge users to use Gopher. The rest is, as they say, history.

Company Bricks User’s Software After He Posts A Negative Review

In the ham radio world Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD) is probably the most frequently used piece of software. It has a ton of functionality for things like logging contacts and controlling radios. There’s really no single competing software package that does it all the way HRD does. It’s not free or open source and a paid license is required.

But it seems their dominant market position has given them the impression they can do anything they want. Like, for example, invalidate a user’s license for posting a negative review online. The review pointed out issues with Windows 10 and HRD’s unwillingness to fix them. They demanded that the review (which documented the problems the user had and continued to have) be taken down in order to re-enable the license and threw in a lawsuit threat as well.

When he went public with his dealings with HRD, the floodgates opened up. It appears this isn’t the first time HRD has invalidated licenses in revenge for negative reviews. They seem to truly hate their customers but until recently this wasn’t well known, even in the ham radio world. That’s no longer the case.

 

Microsoft releases Checked C

The C programming language has been around since the 1970s and it’s been used to create a incredible amount of software. It’s guaranteed to be part of the software you’re using to view this regardless of what you’re using to view it with. But C has some serious drawbacks in that it’s incredibly easy to make serious mistakes that don’t seem obvious until the software is running (and possibly not all time).

But there are follow-on languages that build on C but add features that make some of these errors obvious. Microsoft has one called C# and it’s available for Windows developers to use as part of their Visual Studio developer environment. But lots of programmers, especially those working on open source, are still using regular old C. Recently, Microsoft Research developed Checked C which adds many of the features of C# into C without significantly changing how programmers work or requiring older code to be rewritten. They’ve released it as an open source project for use on Windows and Linux systems and welcome fixes and improvements.

In case you wonder why this is a big deal you need to know that much of the software running on the Internet is programmed in C and many of the security vulnerabilities that have been found and exploited arose from the kind of mistakes that C overlooks. Widespread use of something like Checked C could make a significant improvement in security for everyone.

VW scandal highlights irony of EPA opposition to vehicle software tinkering

The EPA, along with the automakers, is convinced the customers have no right to tinker with their vehicle’s software. They claim it’s to prevent modifications that may increase emissions and/or circumvent emissions controls. But now VW has been found to have done exactly that in close to half a million diesel vehicles. So, who can be trusted?

How BlackBerry’s bid to one-up the iPhone failed

Reading through the story about the Storm, Blackberry’s attempt to top the iPhone I am struck by this quote about the iPhone from Mike Lazaridis:

I couldn’t type on it and I still can’t type on it, and a lot of my friends can’t type on it. . . . It’s hard to type on a piece of glass.

It’s both totally correct yet totally misses the point. It is hard to type on glass at first, but it also doesn’t take long for people to adapt. After all, people needed time to learn to type on the tiny keys of the original Blackberrys, it’s just that we’ve forgotten about that.

It might help to recall the classic blunder made by Coca-Cola with New Coke. The “Pepsi Challenge” had shown that people preferred the taste of Pepsi, or so it seemed. But what people liked about the sweeter taste was only for the initial sip. As they drank the rest, that sweetness became cloying and they liked it less than Coke. It’s important to consider how your product is perceived over time and not just initially. First impressions are important, but unless they’re awful people will overcome them if your product offers enough benefits.

Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty

If you’re on Facebook you’ve probably seen those “It’s been a great year. Thanks for being a part of it.” posts and ads. They’re built up algorithmically from your Facebook activity and if you’ve had a great year they’re a nice reminder of the good things you’ve experienced. But if you haven’t, say you’ve lost a child, they’re a horrible reminder of a year you’d probably like to forget.

Services like Facebook are free because they own so much data about you. You grant them the right to do what they wish with that data. Facebook takes what you post to your timeline and runs it through a program to build these posts. No human is involved. It works just fine for most people, but when you’re not most people it’s a cold reminder  of what you give up when join a free (in terms of $) service.

Farewell, Dr. Dobb’s

Dr. Dobb’s, the programming magazine that’s managed to survive for 38 years, is putting its web site into maintenance mode. No new content, no changes, but the site will remain (at least for a while).

dr. dobb’s journal of Tiny BASIC Calisthenics & Orthodontia (with the subtitle Running Light Without Overbyte) started in 1975 as a photocopied publication intended to distribute and cover the recently developed Tiny BASIC. It grew into a sort of standard reference for programmers working with microcomputers but pretty much lost that once the Internet became generally available. Still, it continued to publish (as a digital-only publication) and maintain its web site until now.

Margaret Hamilton: lead software engineer on Project Apollo

In case you may be wondering, Project Apollo was the project that successfully put men on the Moon. Doing so would have been impossible without computers; this was literally beyond the capability of humans and sliderules. Today the computers used on Apollo seem incredibly primitive but they required a lot of programming and Margaret Hamilton led the team that delivered some of the most reliable software ever.

The photo at the top of the linked article shows her standing next to the printout of all the code for Apollo, which should give you an idea of the scale of the task>