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Pratchett’s gadgets that helped mould the Discworld

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During Terry Pratchett’s first visit to South African in 1999, the planet’s leading fantasy writer reluctantly revealed to ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK the secret to the gadgets that helped mould the technology of his Discworld. Pratchett passed away on 12 March 2015. This is the text of the original article in Gadget.

“If I didn’t use computers, would you ask me about my pens?” is Terry Pratchett’s testy response to the obvious gadget question about his writing tools.

And the answer, frankly Terry, is Yes.

Eventually, Pratchett succumbs. Perhaps it’s the Italian food we’re eating. Perhaps it’s the chemicals in the Johannesburg air. It’s certainly not the fact that this interviewer has been introduced to him as “a fan”.

He dreads being asked questions by fans who remember obscure punch lines long after he has retired them from his best-selling Discworld series of satirical fantasy novels. Or questions about his computers.

But persevere, and he begins to wax lyrical.

“If I still used a typewriter, it would be an old Imperial 58. That’s the one I had most fun with. After that I got an electric typewriter, but typing a page was so final. You felt you had control of the Imperial 58; it was purely manual.”

“When computers became available I began using a computer immediately. My first computer was a ZX-81, but I did word processing on it only for fun. The first computer I used for writing was an Amstrad 464. It was really a games machine with a tape drive built in, so my first word processor was on a cassette.”

Pratchett then “graduated” to the personal computer:

“In the last 10 years I got through six PCs, six portables and a couple of handhelds. Which is less odd than it sounds, since the real life of early machines was very short – from the XT to the AT and then pretty soon the 386, which let one use Windows with one window open. No one would expect an author of my input to use a PC bought 10 years ago.”

“I always had a policy of having two machines to work on and at the moment it is a low end and a high end Pentium. If one blows up, I want a maximum of 10 minutes before I am working on the other machine.”

Pratchett likes his computing as portable as possible, but is not wildly impressed with Windows CE. “It looks nice,” he says, “but it just doesn’t have the capacity.”

Instead, he uses a Toshiba Libretto when travelling.

“The nice thing about the Libretto is that I am writing a novel on it, I have all my other novels on it and my letters are on it, so if I need to check on something, I’ve got it there. With CE you can’t have that. And the Libretto is not much heavier than a high-end CE. I’ve also got a Palm Pilot with me. It’s fun and quite useful.”

A little more useful, indeed, than Hex, the hilarious, elaborate computer housed at the Unseen University in the Discworld series. Although Pratchett might disagree…

Pratchett’s gadget put a Hex on his work

Hex is a computer like no other the world has ever seen. Or rather, that the Discworld has ever seen. For it is the one and only computer on the bizarre world created by Terry Pratchett, Britain’s best-selling author and the world’s favourite fantasy writer.

In the Discworld series, Hex evolves under the watchful eyes of apprentice wizard Ponder Stibbons, who by default becomes what we might think of as the IT manager at the Unseen University in the city of Ankh-Morpork.

As Pratchett puts it in his Christmas send-up, Hogfather, “Hex worried Ponder Stibbons. He didn’t know how it worked, but everyone else assumed that he did.”

Sounds like most IT managers we know, doesn’t it? But this is different: Hex is activated by “initialising the GBL”, which Stibbons reluctantly admits stands for “pulling the Great Big Lever”. This releases millions of ants into a network of glass tubing, hence the sticker on Hex that reads “Anthill inside”. And it is all powered by a waterwheel covered with sheep skulls. That is, male sheep. In other words, RAM.

“Hex is a lot brighter than most computers,” says Pratchett, discussing the properties of this very insane machine in the very sane light of a Johannesburg afternoon.

In The Last Continent (his new book, set in Australia), Stibbons says that after he has been working with HEX for a long time, it is easier to talk to senior wizards, because he has to break every idea into small bits and mustn’t leave any room for ambiguity.

“It always amazes me that people who spend a great deal of time programming computers don’t spend time programming their fellow human beings.”

The inspiration for Hex, which evolves through seemingly unexplainable upgrades like extra cheese, a CWL (clothes wringer from the laundry) and “small religious pictures” (that is. “icons”), came from Pratchett’s own early experiments with unfathomable upgrades.

“I started off with a ZX-81 which I put together myself. It was very easy to add things to it. By the time I was finished with it, it had a speech card, a sound card, and eight or nine sensors: a barometer, solar sensor, temperature sensor and various light sensors.

“I invented Paged RAM; effectively, I gave ZX-81 lots and lots of memory, but it could only access a certain amount of it at one time. It was important that information was at specific memory locations and stayed there. I had lots and lots of 2kb memory chips. One program would dump all kinds of sub-routines on all these RAM chips, and the next routine would run the whole damn show.

“I no longer knew why that sub-routine was there or what it was doing there but it was vitally important that it was there. I couldn’t figure out why, except that it stopped working if I took it out.”

This Hex prototype still exists today, and would probably be a fine exhibit in a literary museum, if they could prize it from Pratchett’s grasp. But he does not share the same respect for it.

“It’s still lying in a shed. It’s a real rat’s nest, and I no longer know how I got it to work.”

Pratchett got the ZX-81 do do things that the computer industry is still trying to get right in the consumer versions of multimedia PCs and artificial intelligence. In those early days, the world “multimedia” did not even exist.

“I would get up and it would sense me when I went into the office and say good morning, tell me what the weather conditions were, and whatever the forecast for the day was. It had a wind sensor too. If you know the wind direction and what the barometer is doing today, and you have a lookup table, it’s not difficult to forecast the weather.”

“It had a lovely sound card with the sound of waves breaking. It had to do things all the time. Eventually there was too much to do, and BASIC (the computer language that founded Bill Gates’ empire) couldn’t keep up.”

He pauses, and with a practised sense of timing that would have done a stand-up comedian proud, adds: “The voice recognition system was probably a mistake.”

But it did provide inspiration for the Discworld.

“Hex is pretty much the same thing. The wizards are not quite sure why it works and not sure that everything it’s got is what they added. For instance, someone gave me a box of relays, so relays became part of the system. I’m not sure why. It was all done with a soldering iron and a box of spares and a bit of BASIC. Once I stopped using it for a while, I completely forgot how it worked.”

One can never be sure if Pratchett is being serious, but there is no denying that he has a unique view – if rather a strange one in a way that would interest the medical fraternity – of the world and the things in it.

While it is almost comforting to know that our reality helped shape his lunatic ideas, perhaps we also need to look at it from the opposite perspective: if the Discworld is inspired by the real world, we have to question the sanity of our own existence.

As the Unseen University’s Archchancellor, Mustrum Ridcully, would probably say, “Sanity? Now there’s an interesting concept. Totally impractical, of course…”

* Follow Arthur Goldstuck on YouTube at http://bit.ly/GGadgets and Twitter on @art2gee. See Terry Pratchett’s touching Twitter farewell on @terryandrob.

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UN calls for electronics overhaul to beat e-waste

Seven UN entities have come together at the World Economic Forum to tackle the escalating scourge of electronic waste.

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Seven UN entities have come together, supported by the World Economic Forum, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) to call for an overhaul of the current electronics system, with the aim of supporting international efforts to address e-waste challenges. 

The report calls for a systematic collaboration with major brands, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), academia, trade unions, civil society and associations in a deliberative process to reorient the system and reduce the waste of resources each year with a value greater than the GDP of most countries. 

Each year, approximately 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) are discarded — the weight of more than all commercial airliners ever made. In terms of material value, this is worth 62.5 billion dollars– more than the GDP of most countries.  

Less than 20% of this is recycled formally. Informally, millions of people worldwide (over 600,000 in China alone) work to dispose of e-waste, much of it done in working conditions harmful to both health and the environment. 

The report, “A New Circular Vision for Electronics – Time for a Global Reboot,” launched in Davos 24 January, says technologies such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT), support gradual “dematerialization” of the electronics industry.  

Meanwhile, to capture the global value of materials in the e-waste and create global circular value chains, the report also points to the use of new technology to create service business models, better product tracking and manufacturer or retailer take-back programs.  

The report notes that material efficiency, recycling infrastructure and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials to meet the needs of electronics supply chains will all be essential for future production.  

And if the electronics sector is supported with the right policy mix and managed in the right way, it could lead to the creation of millions of decent jobs worldwide. 

The joint report calls for collaboration with multinationals, SMEs, entrepreneurs, academia, trade unions, civil society and associations to create a circular economy for electronics where waste is designed out, the environmental impact is reduced and decent work is created for millions. 

The new report supports the work of the E-waste Coalition, which includes: 

  • International Labour Organization (ILO); 
  • International Telecommunication Union (ITU); 
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment); 
  • United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO); 
  • United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR); 
  • United Nations University (UNU), and 
  • Secretariats of the Basel and Stockholm Conventions (BRS). 

The Coalition is supported by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the World Economic Forum and coordinated by the Secretariat of the Environment Management Group (EMG).  

Considerable work is being done on the ground. For example, in order to grasp the opportunity of the circular economy, today the Nigerian Government, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UN Environment announce a 2 million dollar investment to kick off the formal e-waste recycling industry in Nigeria. The new investment will leverage over 13 million dollars in additional financing from the private sector.   

According to the International Labour Organization, in Nigeria up 100,000 people work in the informal e-waste sector. This investment will help to create a system which formalizes these workers, giving them safe and decent employment while capturing the latent value in Nigeria’s 500,000 tonnes of e-waste. 

UNIDO collaborates with a large number of organizations on e-waste projects, including UNU, ILO, ITU, and WHO, as well as various other partners, such as Dell and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). In the Latin American and Caribbean region, a UNIDO e-waste project, co-funded by GEF, seeks to support sustainable economic and social growth in 13 countries. From upgrading e-waste recycling facilities, to helping to establish national e-waste management strategies, the initiative adopts a circular economy approach, whilst enhancing regional cooperation. 

Another Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) report launched today by the World Economic Forum, with support from Accenture Strategy, outlines a future in which Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies provide a tool to achieve a circular economy efficiently and effectively, and where all physical materials are accompanied by a digital dataset (like a passport or fingerprint for materials), creating an ‘internet of materials.’ PACE is a collaboration mechanism and project accelerator hosted by the World Economic Forum which brings together 50 leaders from business, government and international organizations to collaborate in moving towards the circular economy. 

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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