The Home Of Codebreaking: Three Days At Bletchley Park (Part 1)

MaltaGC at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

MaltaGC at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Taking advantage of the freedom of our (tiny) motorhome, my wife and I decided our last long weekend away this year should be to a geeky facility I’ve written about several times here at GaS but never visited until now: Bletchley Park.

For those who don’t know, this is a British country mansion whose grounds were turned into a codebreaking facility during the second world war. It worked primarily on decoding intercepted wireless messages and is commonly cited as having shortened the course of the war by up to two years, though much of its work remained a secret for decades and the equipment was almost entirely destroyed. It also has a major legacy in computing thanks to the technology developed to aid the codebreakers.

We began our trip at the National Museum of Computing which is run separately to the main Bletchley Park organization (and has a separate fee) but leases a building on its grounds. Here we started with the two main attractions, rebuilt Tunny and Colossus machines. Both were used in attempts to decipher the encryption of the Lorenz machine, a more sophisticated version of the better-known Enigma and used by senior military staff and even Hitler’s own office for major commands. As a ciper machine it replaced each letter in the original text with a specific other letter based on specific settings that changed daily.

A highly knowledgeable staff member first demonstrated Tunny, which was an attempt to recreate a Lorenz machine. With such a machine also on display it’s easy to see the scale was substantially out, but it replicated the functionality — an amazing achievement given that Bill Tutte, John Tiltman and others involved with the project had never seen a Lorenz and could only deduce its working from the encrypted messages it had produced.

We then moved on to the rebuild of Colossus (pictured top), the machine created by a formal telephone engineer named Tommy Flowers to make manual decryption easier. It read the encrypted messages (which were input as a paper tape) and then looked for patterns in the text using one of several possible methods chosen by the operator using plugs, switches and wires. Common tactics included looking for patterns which might correspond to the most common German words, to words known to be likely to appear in military instructions, or simply to the known average frequency of the various letters in German. Colossus wouldn’t decipher text but rather identify likely matches which staff could then test on the Tunny machine.

Although it was kept secret for many years (meaning the initial credit went to the US-built ENIAC), Colossus was thus the first electronic, digital, programmable computer. It wasn’t quite what we’d consider a computer today, however, as the user could only choose from a limited range of very similar programs — that is, the preset searching patterns created by arranging the plugs and switches.

The rest of the museum covered computing more generally, with much of it consisting simply of machines across the ages on display (some active and some not.) The most spectacular was a partially constructed rebuild of EDSAC, which arguably was the first machine we’d recognize as a modern computer. Not only could it be programmed to carry out any mathematical/logical procedure (limited only by its physical capacity), but programs could be stored on punch cards to reuse at a later date.

Credit: National Museum of Computing

Credit: National Museum of Computing

While there was too little explanation and context for my liking on the other displays, the collection of hardware is certainly comprehensive, running from analog computers and entire cases of slide rules through office mainframes and 1980s home computers right through to a small exhibition of Internet technology. It’s an effective approach as it almost guarantees that a visitor of any age will find something that sparks nostalgia.

I particularly enjoyed the sheer disparity of the final room which included children learning to code on a BBC Micro; a movie-style interactive tabletop touch-screen with multimedia content that was originally put on laserdisc in 1986 for the Domesday Project; a collection of later 80s/early 90s computer studies programs; a chatbot; and a demonstration of Oculus Rift.

While it often felt like a “throw everything at the wall” approach, I enjoyed the museum and would recommend taking longer than the two hours or so we had available to visit.

(Our visit to Bletchley Park itself will be covered in part two of this piece.)

Move Over Netflix; Amazon Prime Instant Video Now Allows Offline Viewing!

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Amazon Prime members will now be able to download movies to watch offline through iOS and Android apps as part of their subscription. Previously the feature was only available on Amazon’s own Fire devices.

It’s an attractive weapon in the battles with other streaming video services, though does come with several strings. The feature appears to cover both full-fledged Amazon Prime members and the UK-based Amazon Prime Instant Video service (which offers the video streaming as a standalone monthly subscription without the other Prime benefits.)

Not all videos available to stream through a Prime Membership will be available for download: some will remain streaming only thanks to licensing terms. At the moment it appears Columbia Pictures and Sony titles are most likely to be blocked from downloads.

Other terms appear to be similar to those already in place for Fire users. That includes a total of 25 downloaded videos at any time and a two-device limit on downloading any title. There’s also a viewing limit of 15 to 30 days (depending on title) after downloading to start watching a title and then 48 hours after starting watching to finish. (It appears that once you hit this limit, you can’t redownload it unless you buy or rent it on a standalone basis.)

As you’d expect, any videos you’ve downloaded through a Prime membership will be unavailable to view once your membership ends.

While you can download with a single tap from the Amazon website, to watch the downloaded video you’ll need the dedicated Amazon Video app. On iOS that’s available through the iTunes App Store, but on Android you’ll need to use the new Amazon Underground store, which itself needs to be installed through Amazon’s site as it isn’t supported by Google Play.

[Amazon Prime]

The Slave Leia Disney Princess Squad [Picture Gallery]

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Sure, traditional slave Princess Leia cosplays used to be all the rage at conventions back a few years ago, but costumers quickly became blasé with the outfit. Fortunately, creative cosplayers have breathed a new life in the costume lately, mashing up the world of Star Wars with various unrelated franchises, and I have to say, the results are absolutely fantastic! Photography: York in a Box. Cosplayers: Ashlynne Dae as Elsa, Elizabeth Rage as Belle, Rianne Synnth as Mulan, and Hendo as Pocahontas.

The Ultron Cookie Jar: THERE ARE NO CRUMBS ON ME

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From Thinkgeek:

The super-shiny head of Ultron from Avengers: Age Of Ultron protects your cookies with this Ultron Cookie Jar. The finish is particularly nice because we suspect it will show fingerprints, so you’ll know when folks are stealing your cookies, plus you’ll have their fingerprints to hold them responsible. Unfortunately, you won’t have the cookies themselves, which is the most important part of the equation.

[Ultron Cookie Jar]

OMG WANT: The Official Star Wars BB-8 App-Enabled Droid is Here! [Video]

This is most definitely the droid we’ve all been looking for!

Meet BB-8™ – the app-enabled Droid™ that’s as authentic as it is advanced. BB-8 has something unlike any other robot – an adaptive personality that changes as you play. Based on your interactions, BB-8 will show a range of expressions and even perk up when you give voice commands. Set it to patrol and watch your Droid explore autonomously, make up your own adventure and guide BB-8 yourself, or create and view holographic recordings.

Unfortunately, a release date hasn’t been revealed yet, but the little droid will apparently cost around $150, and will likely be available very soon.

[Sphero BB-8 Droid]

Amazon Deal of the Day: Google’s Nest Learning Thermostat, Garmin nüvi 55LMT GPS

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For today’s edition of Deal of the day, we have two great deals!

First, you can get a $50 discount on Google’s Nest Learning Thermostat (2nd Generation.) The 3rd generation just came out, but it basically just has a bigger screen, and you know, it’s a thermostat, so it’s not like you spend all day looking at it. $50 off is awesome for something that almost never gets discounted.

Nest Learning Thermostat, 2nd Generation$249.00 $199 ($50 Off)

Heroes vs. Villains: Who Causes More Damage? [Infographic]

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THis infographic takes a look at the amount of destruction the heroes or villains caused in various superheroes movies. Created by the folks over at HomeAdvisor.

We decided to watch nine of our favorite action-packed Marvel and DC Comics blockbusters and analyze the damage and destruction. Do the villains live up to their name when it comes to wreckage? Or do the heroes actually destroy more in their quest for the greater good? Which characters are most destructive, and who breaks just a few windows and then calls it a day? Pop some popcorn and read on for our take on the topic.

[Souce: HomeAdvisor.com]

The Chemistry of a Complete Breakfast [Science Video]

It’s the most important meal of the day. Or is it? Breakfast has been the topic of much debate. For years, we were told to eat a complete breakfast. But what does that even mean? Should a complete breakfast include eggs, or should you avoid them altogether? Watch as the folks from Reactions break the meal down and let people know from a scientific point what makes a complete breakfast.

[Reactions]