Colossus – first electronic computer – marks 70th anniversary


Colossus in 1945

Sometimes the most important victories in a war don’t occur on battlefields and don’t involve weaponry. On Wednesday, a very unusual group of veterans gathered at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire to commemorate an event that shortened the Second World War and saved countless lives. They were the men and women who built Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic digital computer, and they and their families were at the National Museum of Computing for a re-enactment of the day the famous machine began its code-breaking operations against the Axis forces.

On February 5, 1944, a switch was thrown and one of the most peculiar weapons of the Second World War went into action. As radio valves glowed in massive racks and an intricate cat’s cradle of paper tape spun in front of an electric eye, the Colossus Mark I computer took its first crack at a German Lorenz-encrypted message used by Hitler and his High Command to send their most secret and important messages. It was an act that would lay bare the secrets of the Nazis and even become a decisive factor in launching the D-Day invasion.

Many people have heard of the German Enigma cipher that Alan Turing and others at the British code-breaking center at Bletchley Park managed to crack, allowing the Allies to read German communications. But there was another, more complicated cipher called Lorenz. Generated by the SZ40/42 teletypewriter in-line cipher machine (code named “Tunny” by the British) built by C. Lorenz AG in Berlin, the machine produced what is called a Vernam cipher using 12 rotor wheels linked in an eye-wateringly intricate manner based on the Boolean XOR function. The upshot of this is that a message encrypted by the Lorenz machine was incredibly difficult to decrypt without knowing the wheel settings used to write it…

I won’t edit down the original article in Gizmag. It’s all useful history, geek or otherwise.

Read how Tommy Flowers, a General Post Office telephone electrical engineer modified the digital electronic telephone switching system he was designing for the GPO – ending up with the Mark I Colossus and others that followed.

Fascinating stuff.

Republicans discover there may be a jobs crisis in the US

The U.S. has been in a jobs emergency since at least 2008. The cause of the crisis…isn’t mysterious, and neither are the solutions. We could invest in infrastructure to create construction jobs. We could give tax breaks to employers who hire new workers. We could restore the payroll tax cut to workers so they have more money to spend. We could help state and local governments hire back some of the employees they laid off during the recession. Macroeconomic Advisers, an economic consulting firm, found that the American Jobs Act, which contained many of these policies, would have created 2 million jobs.

But in recent years, these policies have been either blocked or canceled by congressional Republicans. They fought Democrats to scuttle the American Jobs Act and allow the payroll tax break and long-term unemployment benefits to expire. Creating jobs, they argued, was neither feasible nor affordable.

That’s the proper context in which to view this week’s hysteria about Obamacare. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office just released updated estimates for the health law. It found that the disastrous rollout last fall put Obamacare behind schedule — on track to insure 2 million fewer people than projected by the end of 2014. On the other hand, it also found that insurance premiums were about 15 percent lower than projected, and that the law would cost less than previously estimated. It found that the risk corridors designed to safeguard insurance companies from the effects of acquiring too many high-risk customers — which Republicans have been calling an “insurer bailout” — will actually yield $8 billion in net payments from insurers to the federal government.

The finding that made the news, however, concerned the Affordable Care Act’s long-term effect on labor supply. In past reports, the CBO has estimated that the law will, on net, lead some people to drop out of the labor market or cut back on their hours because their health insurance is no longer tied to their job. Imagine a 62-year-old who would like to shift to part-time work but can’t because he can’t afford — or, due to pre-existing conditions, wouldn’t even be sold — insurance on the individual market. Now, because Obamacare has made that insurance affordable and available, he can — and will. As a result, his work hours will be (voluntarily) reduced…

Whether this is good or bad depends on your views about human flourishing. Lower labor-force participation is bad for economic growth. On the other hand, the point of life is not for everyone to work every possible hour until they die. Workers should be able to choose to leave their jobs or cut their hours without worrying that their families won’t survive a medical emergency. In addition, as the Urban Institute’s Donald Marron tweeted, “employers will be competing harder for workers,” which will push wages to rise for everyone remaining in the workforce…

Policies don’t exist in vacuums. By untying the link between employment and health care, the Affordable Care Act reduces the incentive to work. But there are ways to increase incentives to work without making people dependent on their jobs for health insurance. We can help people without taking away their health care.

So here’s a simple proposal. Repeal of the Affordable Care Act would cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next few decades because of the law’s spending cuts and new revenue. So instead of repeal, how about if Congress devotes that same amount of money to policies to increase employment now. Republicans could even dictate that all the money flow to targeted tax cuts.

Ezra Klein politely suggests the Republicans are hypocrites. He’s wasting politeness on the crudest, least responsible clot of scumsuckers ever seated beneath the moldy dome of Congress.

Republicans denied playing a part in Wall Street’s crash and burning. They tried as hard as possible to avoid any cooperation on essential economic remedies. Every year since the beginning of the worst economic failure since Herbert Hoover was president – their mantra has been “Jobs, jobs, jobs” – while blocking any reasonable attempt to assist jobs creation.

They stuck to dribble-down economics with a 100% record of failure and spent most of their casual time inside the Capitol waging war on women, reproductive rights, working as hard as possible to rescue their mates in the insurance cartels from bona fide national healthcare, committed to every possible delay in the expansion of civil rights. And, of course, hoping to start the occasional war.

Now, once again, they say they are worried about jobs for working class America. If I was a fire-and-brimstone Christian I wouldn’t stand outdoors next to a Republican for fear of being struck by lightning.

Aid in Dying sounds better than Death with Dignity to some folks


The original article deals with Robert Milton and his quest for a right to die

Helping the terminally ill end their lives, condemned for decades as immoral, is gaining traction. Banned everywhere but Oregon until 2008, it is now legal in five states. Its advocates, who have learned to shun the term “assisted suicide,” believe that as baby boomers watch frail parents suffer, support for what they call the “aid in dying” movement will grow further.

In January, a district court in New Mexico authorized doctors to provide lethal prescriptions and declared a constitutional right for “a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying.” Last May, the Vermont Legislature passed a law permitting it, joining Montana, Oregon and Washington. This spring, advocates are strongly promoting “death with dignity” bills in Connecticut and other states.

Public support for assisted dying has grown in the past half-century but depends in part on terminology. In a Gallup Poll conducted in May, for example, 70 percent of respondents agreed that when patients and their families wanted it, doctors should be allowed to “end the patient’s life by some painless means.” In 1948, that share was 37 percent, and it rose steadily for four decades but has remained roughly stable since the mid-1990s.

Yet in the same 2013 poll, only 51 percent supported allowing doctors to help a dying patient “commit suicide…”

Opponents say that actively ending a life, no matter how frail a person is, is a moral violation and that patients might be pushed to die early for the convenience of others.

“The church teaches that life is sacred from conception through to natural death,” Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., told legislators at a recent breakfast as he criticized the court decision there…

Actually, you can count on the Archbishop to moralize against anything not listed in his rulebook: women priests, reproductive rights for women, divorce, gay marriage. Pretty much everything but war. He’ll say he’s against that, too – but, I don’t recall bumping into him at any peace rallies.

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