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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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Hearables are the new wearables

Earworn devices were among the fastest growing categories of wearable in the last quarter, capturing almost half of the market

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Global wearable device shipments grew 85.2% in the second quarter of 2019 (2Q19) as shipments totaled 67.7 million units according to new data from the International Data Corporation (IDCWorldwide Quarterly Wearable Device Tracker. Earworn devices (hearables) were among the fastest growing categories, capturing 46.9% of the overall wearables market during the quarter, up from 24.8% a year ago. Driving that growth was a slew of new products and consumers who purchased their second wearable, a hearable, to use in parallel with existing watches or wrist bands.

“The growing popularity of the hearables segment is forcing existing brands to reconsider past designs when launching new products, as evident in Samsung’s popular Galaxy Buds, while also attracting new brands to market,” said Jitesh Ubrani research manager for IDC Mobile Device Trackers. “And though it’s still early days, the market is showing signs of emerging subsegments such as hearables dedicated to sports from the likes of Jabra, premium hearables from companies such as Bose, and ones dedicated to hearing loss such as those from Nuheara.”

“What has been driving the hearables market is the experience,” says Ramon T. Llamas, research director, Wearables. “Quality audio is still the hallmark of hearables, but additional features – ranging from adjusting audio to smart assistants and health and fitness – increase their value and utility. As prices come down and more features come on board, this next generation of hearables will become the new normal for earphones.”

Hearable Company Highlights 

Apple led the market for hearables by capturing 50.2% share during the quarter. New products such as the refreshed AirPods and the latest from the Beats lineup helped the company grow 218.2% compared to last year. With the iPhone business facing challenges, Apple’s wearables business, particularly the popularity of the AirPods, is helping the company once again become the de facto standard though this time it’s for hearables.

Samsung, thanks to its self-branded devices and the JBL brand, captured the second position during the quarter. The highly publicized Galaxy Buds were one of the company’s most popular pair of hearables as the pair was bundled with the purchase of Samsung’s latest smartphone. Additionally, the JBL Tune 500BT managed to capture a large share as the low price and wide availability helped move a lot of volume.

Xiaomi’s AirDots (amongst other models) helped the company capture the third position. Though the company primarily sells its hearables in China, Xiaomi has already started to make inroads in other markets such as Europe and the Middle East with its smartphones and wrist bands. IDC expects Xiaomi to follow suit with its hearables.

Bose, a company with a long history of headphones and other audio products, ranked fourth in this market. The company’s long lineage in audio and premium offering has helped set the company apart from the remainder of the pack. The QC35ii and the SoundSport Free were two of its most popular products during the quarter. The latest Headphones 700 and upcoming Earbuds 500 should help the company maintain momentum in the upcoming quarters.

ReSound, the parent company of Jabra, rounded out the top 5 with 5.1% share and 132.9% growth. Jabra’s Elite Active 65t have been extremely popular as an alternative to Apple’s AirPods and have also been promoted heavily on Amazon’s store, allowing the company to pitch itself as a strong consumer brand in addition to its preexisting headset business that is targeted at office workers. At IFA 2019, Jabra announced the next version of the Elite Active series, which helps modernize the hearables and should provide healthy competition for others on the list.

Top 5 Wearable Companies, Hearable Devices only, by Shipment Volume, Market Share, and Year-Over-Year Growth, Q2 2019 (shipments in millions)

Company2Q19 
Shipments
2Q19 Market 
Share
2Q18 
Shipments
2Q18 Market 
Share
Year-over- 
Year Growth
1. Apple15.950.2%5.055.2%218.2%
2. Samsung3.310.2%0.910.2%252.1%
3. Xiaomi2.16.5%0.32.8%714.8%
4. Bose1.85.7%0.55.1%288.1%
5. ReSound1.65.1%0.77.7%132.9%
Others7.122.3%1.719.0%310.5%
Total31.8100.0%9.1100.0%250.0%
Source: IDC Worldwide Quarterly Wearables Tracker, September 9, 2019

Note: IDC defines Earwear/Hearables as the wearables that hang on or plug into the ear. The device must operate wirelessly and provide stereo sound while also including at least one of the following features:

  • Track health/fitness (e.g., Samsung Gear IconX).
  • Modify audio, and not just noise reduction (e.g., Nuheara IQbuds).
  • Provide language translation on the device (e.g., Waverly Labs).
  • Enable smart assistants at the touch of a button or through hotword detection even if the assistant is running on another device such as a smartphone (e.g., Apple’s AirPods and Google’s Pixel Buds).

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Phishing attacks hook into iOS

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The number of phishing attacks targeting users of Mac computers, iOS-based mobile devices, and the associated web services ecosystem to lure them into fraudulent schemes has reached 1.6 million in the first half of 2019 (H1-19) – proving that the growing number of users of popular digital devices is clearly attracting more and more cybercriminals!

While the volume of malicious software threatening users of macOS and the iOS mobile platform is much lower than those threating users of Windows and Android platforms, when it comes to phishing – a platform agnostic cyberthreat – things are quite different. 

Phishing attacks rely on social engineering, which means most have nothing to do with software. In fact,  Kaspersky’s recent Threats to Mac Users research highlighted that the number of cases where users faced fraudulent web pages utilising the Apple brand, as a decoy, has increased significantly in the first six-months of the year, reaching 1.6 million. This figure is around 9% greater than attacks experienced during the whole of 2018, when Kaspersky security solutions prevented more than 1.49 million attempts to access Apple-themed phishing pages.

What’s more, some regions had more macOS users hit by phishing than others, for instance, Brazil leads this list with 30.9% of users attacked, followed by India with 22.1% – and while not as prominent as other regions (and in proportion to the number of Apple device users), South Africa still sits at 17.5%.

The research is based on threat statistics voluntarily shared by users of Kaspersky Security Network – a global cloud infrastructure designed for immediate response to emerging cyberthreats.

Among the most frequent fraud schemes are those designed to resemble the iCloud service interface, aimed at stealing credentials to Apple ID accounts. Links to such services usually come from spam emails posed as emails from technical support. They often threaten to block user accounts should they not click the link. 

Another widespread scheme is the use of scaremongering pages that try to convince the user that their computer is under serious security threat and it will only take a couple of clicks and a few dollars to solve those issues. 

“While technically these fraud schemes are nothing new, we believe they pose an even greater danger to Apple users than similar schemes against users of other platforms – such as Windows or Android. This is because the ecosystem around Macs and other Apple devices is generally considered a far safer environment. Therefore, users might be less cautious when they encounter fake websites. Meanwhile the successful theft of iCloud account credentials could lead to serious consequences – an iPhone or iPad could be remotely blocked or wiped by a malicious user, for example. We urge users of Apple devices to pay more attention to any emails they receive, especially those claiming to be from technical support and requesting the user’s details or asking the user to visit a link,” said Tatyana Sidorina, security researcher at Kaspersky.

In addition to a rise in phishing, thereport also revealed other types of threats to users of macOS-based devices. The results have demonstrated some relatively positive tendencies: the most common threats for Mac users proved not to be critically dangerous malware, like banking Trojans, but instead AdWare threats, which are not-necessarily fatal and defined as ‘potentially unwanted programs’. Most are threatening users by overloading their devices with unrequested advertisements, yet some of these programs might, in fact, turn out to be a disguise for more serious threats.

Other findings of the report include:

To keep your devices safe, Kaspersky recommends:

  • Keeping macOS and all your apps and programs up to date
  • Using only legitimate software, downloaded from official webpages or installed from the Mac App Store
  • Starting to use a reliable security solution like Kaspersky Internet Security that delivers advanced protection on Mac, as well as on PC and mobile devices.

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