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Terminal trickery, or how to improve a novel immeasurably • The Register

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Who, Me? Start your week the right way, with a Who, Me? reader confession and an improvement made to some bodice-ripping fiction.

Our tale comes from a reader we shall call “Anne”, because that is not her name but she understably wants to remain anonymous.

Anne was gainfully employed as a contractor for an automotive accessory manufacturer and worked on the testing of some critical embedded software and hardware that would later be found in the wares of a number of major car makers.

As was the tradition of the time, the supposedly filthy rich contractors were kept well apart from the hardworking permies (lest those workers be lured to the dark side, we suspect. This was the early 1990s after all.)

In this case, Anne’s team had been stashed into a portacabin set up in the car park. They were tasked with creating a mountain of test paperwork so vast that that even if something in the embedded code did go wrong, so much testing had been done that it was clearly impossible for it to have been foreseen.

The other thing they did was… get bored.

“Obviously,” Anne told us, “cooping up a bunch of highly skilled software engineers together, working on such a mundane and repetitive task was asking for trouble.”

Indeed it was. Soon tiring of the “Daily Word Game”, in which a random word from an electronic thesaurus would be snuck into the documentation of the day (the winner was the one to use it the most times), the restless team turned their attention to what fun could be had with the VT220 terminals they were using.

The answer was quite a bit.

The Unix box running the show was located in the main building, and a hosepipe of Ethernet (occasionally hitting the giddy speeds of 10Mbps) was used to connect the screens via serial taps. “It was possible to cat any characters or character sequences to any other terminal, including special characters like inverse video and BELL,” explained Anne.

“Although the terminal display might appear corrupted the working data was unaffected.”

It started innocently enough. The contractors would invert the video or ring the bell on each other’s screens, doubtlessly helping pass the time until booze o’clock rolled around.

“But then,” Anne told us, “we realised that some of the Portacabin windows overlooked the hardware lab windows.”

And so, of course, they worked out which terminals were visible and began doing similar things to the staff in the lab. “Sequences of multiple inverse, non inverse and bell characters would create quite a stunning result,” said Anne happily.

The users – probably a little less happy. The IT Manager would be called but, just as he arrived, the terminals would be set back to normal. Then, just as he tried to leave, things would go ‘wrong’ once more. All it lacked was the Benny Hill soundtrack.

It escalated further. Since the contractors were allowed to do as many hours as they liked (“the customer really wanted this product in production,” explained Anne) they frequently worked late. One evening, the team noticed a solitary worker still in the lab. They pulled up the text from the worker’s screen and found he was writing a novel in the style of famous UK romantic story publisher, Mills & Boon.

There was only one thing for it. One of the contractors found a Jive translator and so did the obvious thing.

The worker found his carefully crafted words suddenly changed to something that might have been heard around Harlem decades previously. Timing was key – the text was changed just long enough to cause confusion, but switched back before the worker starting making changes of his own. Do no harm and all that.

“Goodness knows what he thought,” said Anne.

All good things must come to an end, and when the IT Manager decided to replace one of the TTYs in the lab, the team decided to out itself. Of course, the trick with the inverse video and so forth was repeated on the new screen but, “just when he got to the door and turned to rush back, we made sure he saw us all waving from the Portacabin windows!”

“He was surprisingly good natured about it.”

There is a saying about idle hands, but we’re pretty sure it didn’t involve VT220 terminals. What harmless shenanigans have you indulged in to pass the hours away? Or were you the victim of the antics of a contractor hidden out of sight and out of mind? Let us know, with an email to Who, Me? ®

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AWS to retire classic EC2 – the compute service that started the IaaS rush • The Register

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Comment Amazon Web Services has announced the retirement of its third cloud service: the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, aka EC2 Classic.

A July 28 post by AWS Chief Evangelist Jeff Barr explains that the service was superseded in 2009 by Amazon Virtual Private Cloud, then again by Virtual Private Clouds for Everyone in 2013.

Barr’s post explains that customers who signed up with AWS since December 4, 2013, couldn’t use EC2 Classic unless they specifically requested it. The bulk of AWS customers will not, therefore, be inconvenienced by the service’s retirement.

Those that do use the service need to be on their toes, because AWS has set a deadline of August 15, 2022 – after which it expects “no remaining EC2 Classic resources present in any AWS account,” and all migrations to something else will be complete.

As a reminder, on October 31, 2021, AWS will disable EC2 Classic for accounts that don’t use the service and stop selling reserved instances. Barr writes that AWS will work with customers to make those migrations as easy as can be.

“We don’t plan to disrupt any workloads and will do our best to help you to meet these dates,” Barr explains.

The AWS man also reminisces about how EC2 became a big hit, fast. “We helped Animoto to scale to a then-amazing 3,400 instances when their Facebook app went viral,” he writes.

AWS has scaled things rather higher since: in 40th place on the June 2021 update to the Top 500 list of Earth’s mightiest supercomputers was a 172,692-core machine that ran for just 24 minutes in the Amazonian cloud.

EC2 was AWS’s third service. It debuted in August 2006, after the March 2006 debut of the Simple Storage Service and the July arrival of Simple Queue Service.

That all three sparked a vast and important change in business computing is not in dispute. Service providers had previously rented remotely-located compute and storage, but AWS made them more accessible and scalable than predecessors. AWS prices were also shockingly low – in a good way – and its services took off.

The Register cannot think of an enterprise computing product or vendor that has not been influenced by AWS and EC2. Makers of on-prem IT have all striven to become more cloud-like ever since EC2 debuted – both in terms of the user experience and by charging for consumption rather than up-front. Whole new software development and deployment practices have emerged to take advantage of elastic resources sold as-a-service.

EC2 has also left a cultural footprint, as the likes of Netflix realized that cloud computing offered previously unavailable possibilities.

AWS brings in more than $50bn of annual revenue, and is widely regarded as the dominant force in cloud computing.

Barr’s post states that AWS will give EC2 Classic “a gold watch and a well-deserved sendoff!”

The service deserves that, and more. ®

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Got an idea for the future of science in Ireland?

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The Creating Our Future initiative is seeking 10,000 ideas on which to base Ireland’s next science and research agenda.

The Government of Ireland is hosting a ‘national brainstorm’ to guide the future of science and research in the country.

First announced last month, a nationwide conversation about research and innovation has officially kicked off today (28 July) at CreatingOurFuture.ie.

The online portal aims to collect 10,000 ideas from a broad section of the Irish public. It will be open for submissions from now until the end of November.

‘Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas’
– SIMON HARRIS, TD

“Covid-19 has highlighted, like never before, the vital role that research has played in mitigating challenges facing the country,” said Minister for Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris, TD. “But we have many more challenges and opportunities that research rigour and analytical excellence can help us with to build a better future for Ireland.”

Harris added: “Good ideas and curiosity are the starting point for most research, and nobody has a monopoly on good ideas. So, we are asking everyone to submit that idea that they have been thinking about, or have a conversation with their neighbours, host an event with a researcher or in your local community to think about what might make a difference and let us know.”

Events will be held across the country until the Creating Our Future ideas portal closes, inviting and encouraging citizens and communities to engage with the project.

The national initiative is itself an idea borrowed from similar efforts in other countries. A key inspiration was a programme driven by FWO, the Flanders research foundation. Launched in the spring of 2018, its Question for Science campaign received 10,559 responses, and has returned answers to more than 1,500.

These questions formed the basis of the Flemish Science Agenda, a strategy for science and innovation that is built on societal issues and citizens’ curiosity. Questions asked of FWO included ‘What is the effect of the 24-hour economy on psychological health?’ and ‘How can we avoid war and violence?’.

The Irish effort is hoped to deepen relationships between the Irish science community and the public it serves, and the resounding call from organisers is for all to participate.

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“This is an important opportunity to contribute to shaping future research. I encourage everyone to get involved,” said Taoiseach Micheál Martin, TD.

“This isn’t for any one section of society, we want to engage everyone in conversations in communities across the country, to inspire curiosity and generate ideas for research that will shape our future.”

All responses submitted to the portal will be collated and shared with an independent expert panel of researchers and civil society leaders.

There is also a Creating Our Future advisory forum chaired by Nokia Bell Labs global head of external collaboration programmes, Julie Byrne. In this role, Byrne brings researchers together for collaborative work and she herself has almost 30 years’ experience in engineering, tech and research.

“Over the coming months we will have many conversations about research across the country to gather ideas from our communities that research can tackle to create a better future for all of us,” she said. “I encourage everyone to get involved so that we capture ideas from all communities across the country.”

The results of the campaign will be published in a report by the end of 2021. This will go on to inform Ireland’s future strategy for research, innovation, science and technology.

Previously, Science Foundation Ireland’s director of science for society called on Irish citizens join a mass public debate about lessons learned throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr Ruth Freeman spoke at Future Human in 2020 about the importance of including the voice of the public in shaping the future of science.

“Giving people more of a say in their future is clearly the right and democratic thing to do, and it might just make for better science as well,” she said.

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‘Disinfo kills’: protesters demand Facebook act to stop vaccine falsehoods | Facebook

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Activists are to descend on Facebook’s Washington headquarters on Wednesday to demand the company take stronger action against vaccine falsehoods spreading on its platform.

Protesters are planning to cover the lawn in front of Facebook’s office with body bags that read “disinfo kills” as a symbol of the harm caused by online disinformation, as Covid cases surge in the US.

The day of protest has been organized by a group of scholars, advocates and activists calling themselves the “Real” Oversight Board. The group is urging Facebook’s shareholders to ban so-called misinformation “superspreaders” – the small number of accounts responsible for the majority of false and misleading content about the Covid-19 vaccines.

“People are making decisions based on the disinformation that’s being spread on Facebook,” said Shireen Mitchell, Member of the Real Facebook Oversight Board and founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women. “If Facebook is not going to take that down, or if all they’re going to do is put out disclaimers, then fundamentally Facebook is participating in these deaths as well.”

In coordination with the protest, the Real Oversight Board has released a new report analyzing the spread of anti-vaccine misinformation on Facebook during the company’s most recent financial quarter. The report and protest also come as Facebook prepares to announce its financial earnings for that same quarter.

The report references a March study from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) that found a small group of accounts – known as the “dirty dozen” – is responsible for more than 73% of anti-vaccine content across social media platforms, including Facebook. That report recently drew attention from the White House, and Joe Biden has condemned Facebook and other tech companies for failing to take action.

Facebook banned misinformation about vaccines from the platform in February of 2021, but critics say many posts slip through the platform’s filters and reach audiences of millions without being removed.

It also has introduced a number of rules relating to Covid-19 specifically, banning posts that question the severity of the disease, deny its existence, or argue that the vaccine has more risks than the virus. Still, the Real Oversight Board found that often such content has been able to remain on the platform and even make its way into the most-shared posts.

According to the Real Oversight Board’s report, a large share of the misinformation about the Covid vaccines comes from a few prolific accounts, and continues to be among the platform’s best performing and most widely shared content. It analyzed the top 10 posts on each weekday over the last quarter and found the majority of those originated from just five identified “superspreaders” of misinformation.

“When it comes to Covid disinformation, the vast majority of content comes from an extremely small group of highly visible users, making it far easier to combat it than Facebook admits,” the board said, concluding that Facebook is “continuing to profit from hate and deadly disinformation”.

The group has called on Facebook to remove the users from the platform or alter its algorithm to disable engagement with the offending accounts. Facebook did not immediately respond to request for comment, but has stated in the past it has removed more than 18m pieces of Covid misinformation.

Congress has also taken note of the spread of vaccine misinformation on Facebook and other platforms, with the Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar introducing a bill that would target platforms whose algorithms promotes health misinformation related to an “existing public health emergency”.

The bill, called the Health Misinformation Act, would remove protections provided by the internet law Section 230, which prevent platforms from being sued over content posted by their users in such cases.

“For far too long, online platforms have not done enough to protect the health of Americans,” Klobuchar said in a statement on the bill. “These are some of the biggest, richest companies in the world, and they must do more to prevent the spread of deadly vaccine misinformation.”

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