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A Programming Error Led to One of the Largest Losses of American Lives in the Gulf War

One of the deadliest attacks on American soldiers during the 1991 Gulf War came when an Iraqi Scud missile hit the U.S. Army barracks near Dharan, Saudi Arabia, killing 28 people. The nearby Patriot missile battery failed to intercept the Scud, and it turns out that the Patriot had a software bug: one part of its internal calculations used a decimal representation of time, and one part used a binary representation. Since the error derived in part from the Patriot’s internal clock, it got worse the longer the system went without a reboot — and during the war, the Patriots were always on alert and never rebooted. The missile that hit Dharan, it turns out, was the last one Iraq fired.

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A Killer May Have Gone Free Because She Used Firefox

The 2011 trial of Casey Anthony was extremely high-profile. The police examined evidence on the computer Anthony shared with her parents, including its search history. But only after Anthony was acquitted did her defense attorney reveal that incriminating search terms involving poisoning and suffocation were present, but never brought up by prosecutors. It appears that prosecutors had carefully poured over the search history from Internet Explorer– but not from Firefox, Anthony’s preferred browser.

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A Classic Hollywood Film Star Helped Invent Wi-Fi

Hedy Lamarr is a famous beauty of classic Hollywood; she was also mathematically gifted and had learned a lot about weapons systems from her first husband, an arms manufacturer. She was friends with George Antheil, an avante-garde composer with similarly broad interests. Together, during World War II, the two of them patented technology that would allow radio signals to torpedoes to hop from frequency and avoid being jammed. The Navy rejected it at the time, but took it up to 20 years later during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the patent figured into the development of numerous broadcast standards, including Wi-Fi.

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Wikipedia Needs an Army of Anti-vandal Bots

Wikipedia’s mission is to make knowledge freely available to anyone with access to the Internet. However, anyone with internet can also sign up and edit pages – which results in what they call vandalism (someone purposefully altering facts with malice).

There is a very robust moderation system but there’s only so much that a person can do, in terms of actively monitoring changes and correcting changes that vandals make.

That’s where the bots — essentially computer programs — come in. The bots (like ClueBot-NG) keep a track of all changes made to any page and instantly revert back to the ‘correct’ version if a vandal decides to change things. About 1,941 bots are authorized for use on the 38,818,162 Wikipedia pages at last count.

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QWERTY vs ABC Layouts in Advanced Graphing Calculators

Before smartphones, there was a time when digital diaries and advanced calculators were popular. They could be used to store simple forms of data and to perform calculations that students could use while solving differential equations apart from algebra and calculus capabilities.

While advanced calculators were ‘allowed’ to be taken into exam halls, many tests banned devices if they had QWERTY keyboards, simply because they fitted into the traditional definition of a ‘computer’.

Texas Instruments solved the problem by introducing graphing calculators with keyboards that had an alphabetical layout.

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Russia Built a Computer That Ran on Water: in 1936

Before the miniaturization of transistors, computers had a much more visible system of counting: things like gears, pivots, beads and levers were often used and they needed some sort of power source to function.

Vladimir Lukyanov built something like this in 1936 but he used water to create a computer that solved partial differential equations. In images of the Lukyanov computer, you’ll see a complex system of interconnected tubes filled with water.

Adjusting taps and plugs altered the flow of water (and changed variables) while the end result was seen by measuring the level of water in certain tubes. It was also called a Water Integrator and was originally designed to solve the problem of cracking in concrete. It’s now found in Moscow’s Polytechnic Museum.

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The X-Y Position Indicator for Displays – a.k.a The Mouse

When the first pointing device was invented in the early 60’s by Douglas Engelbart and Bill English (they were part of the Stanford Research Institute), it was called the X-Y Position Indicator for Display Systems (referring of course, to the X & Y axes).

It was first used with the Xerox Alto computer and demonstrated in 1968 by Engelbart in what is called the ‘Mother of all demos’ (check it out on YouTube). In 1968, Engelbart showed off word processing, graphics, windows, file linking and control using a ‘mouse’ – all these things made their way into modern computers.

Engelbart was also responsible for the name mouse, coined simply because the cable sticking out the end of the device reminded him of a rodent’s tail.

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In 1956, 5 Megabytes (5MB) of Data Weighed a Ton

It was 1956 when IBM launched RAMAC, the first computer with something like a hard drive that we use today.

By hard drive, we mean something that used magnetic disks – a moving head was used to access and write that data. At the time, it was considered a massive leap in massstorage technology because it signified a shift: from punch cards and magnetic tape (which stored data sequentially) to randomly accessible hard drives.

RAMAC itself stood for Random Access Method of Accounting & Control. The whole cabinet weighed over 1000kg and the 5MP data was spread over 50 huge aluminium disks, coated with magnetic iron oxide. The disks rotated at a speed of 1200rpm and the machines were leased for $3,200 per month back in the day.

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Domain Name Registrations were Free till 1995

Nobody really knew what the internet was capable of back then and this was a huge opportunity for people to own all kinds of do domain names. It was in 1995 that a company called Network Solutions was granted the rights to charge people for domain names. And it was expensive too: prices typically started at $100 per two years of registration.

As much as 30 per cent of this was a fee that went to the National Science Foundation to create an ‘Internet Intellectual Infrastructure Fund’. This fee was later reversed in 1997, bringing the charge down to $70 for two years

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92% of the World’s Currency is Digital

This means that most of the money you earn, transact with, use to buy goods/services and so on exists only on computers and hard drives. Only an estimated 8 per cent of currency globally is physical money.

All the black money piles come from within this 8 per cent. This is a fair estimate that economists seem to agree on though, not an exact figure. This low percentage seems absurd but when you stop to think, it makes sense considering that most large transactions are done electronically anyway.

Banks store electronically too and the 92 per cent includes all kinds of transactions done using credit/debit cards and wire transfers. Might be a good idea to revisit all those hacker movies where a nerdy computer hacker manages to siphon billions off in just a few minutes.

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