CS4FN Advent – Day 20: where’s it @? Gift tags and internet addresses

We’re doing a post a day for Advent 2021 with a mix of new articles and ones from our extensive CS4FN (Computer Science For Fun) archives. CS4FN has been going since 2005 and we have hundreds of articles to choose from, on a huge variety of topics.

We hope you’re enjoying our daily posts and if you’ve missed any just scroll to the end to catch up with the full set.

Today is Day 20 of the CS4FN Christmas Computing Advent Calendar and the picture today is a gift tag, which is a way of addressing a gift. So today’s post is all about internet addresses.

A festive gift-tag

1. Wh@ a history!

by Peter McOwan, QMUL. This article originally appeared on the CS4FN website.

The @ symbol of your email address first appeared in the Middle Ages. Monks would translate and copy books, but there were often problems when the bookbinders put the pages together in the wrong order. To get round this the monks repeated the last line of each page on the top of the next. This was very laborious so they came up with quick abbreviations even for small but common words like “ad”. It is Latin for “at” or “to”, and the medieval monks sometimes wrote ‘d’ like a mirrored ‘6’. The @ symbol was born. Morse code was updated in 2003 with a special code for @ (•–•-•) so that people could send email addresses by Morse code!


2. La Chiocchiola pasta

by Jo Brodie, QMUL.

In 1999 an Italian pasta company decided to create a pasta shape to celebrate the humble @ symbol. “@” had already been in use in email addresses for several decades (since the 1960s) but was becoming more popular as the use of email expanded and spread beyond businesses, the military and academia (universities etc).

@ symbol image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

The ‘cyberpasta’ was called “La Chiocchiola” which is the Italian word for snail and you can probably see why they use that word to describe the similarly-shaped symbol. The pasta was awarded a prize from the National Museum of Pasta in Rome where samples of the @ shape were displayed and also given away free. Thanks to the Internet Archive you can even see a copy of the English language version of the pasta company’s website from May 1999 (only a few months after Google was founded).


3. Do @ me

by Jo Brodie, QMUL.

We can thank Ray Tomlinson for the earliest use of the @ symbol to separate an individual computer use from the network they’re using, and to act as an addressing system. Millions of people use Gmail and have an email address ending in gmail.com but (generally) each one gets only their own messages thanks to whatever unique set of letters and numbers is in front of the @. He chose the symbol because it’s a character that never appears in people’s name so could be used as a marker to separate the person from the machine or network. This neat and simple solution made it possible for people to send email anywhere in the world.

Further reading

How does email work? (31 May 2021) Namecheap – a detailed guide to what happens after you press SEND.


How telephone calls used to be connected (From Wikimedia Commons).


4. The internet’s address book

by Jo Brodie, QMUL.

Type any web address like www.google.com into a browser address bar, press enter and that address is instantly converted behind the scenes into a series of numbers.

The web address is known as a domain name and it’s an easy to remember version of the website’s address. The series of numbers is called the IP address (which stands for Internet Protocol). The human-readable domain name is translated into the machine-readable IP address by the DNS (Domain Name System) which acts as the internet’s ‘address book’. A DNS server can ‘look up’ the domain name in a list and find the corresponding IP address.

Everything that is connected to the internet has its own IP address including smartphones, laptops, networked printers etc and IP addresses have been in use for decades, helping direct traffic around the internet. We don’t usually see these IP addresses (we don’t generally need to!) but they look like a string of digits chunked into 4 groups, for example

Each of those four ‘chunks’ is actually represented by an 8-digit binary number (or ‘octet’), so the range of each 8-digit octet goes from 00000000 (zero) to 11111111 (255). As 11111111 is the largest 8-digit binary number possible, no chunk can be above 255.

  • There are four octets (each containing 8 digits) in an IP address
  • Each of the octets can range from 00000000 to 11111111 (represented by 0 to 255)
  • Every IP address is therefore made up of a string of 32 (4 octets x 8 digits) ones or zeroes in a particular combination.

This means that there are 232 (two to the power of 32) possible IP address combinations giving an enormous number of over 4 billion addresses (which can be written as 4,294,967,296 or 4.294967296 × 109). Note that it’s “2” because in binary it’s either a 1 or a 0.

You might think that this would give us plenty of addresses to be going on with, but no! It was predicted that as more devices were connected to the internet, as its use expanded, we’d eventually start to run out and sure enough in 2011 we actually began to run out of these 32-bit addresses. Fortunately a new internet protocol (version 6, so it’s IPv6) was developed that uses 128 bits, which means there’s now a possible 2128 variations, giving an even more enormous number of 3.402823669 x 1038 addresses. Well, that should keep us going for a while!


Example IP address (from Wikimedia Commons).


5. Cracking a smart meter

by Paul Curzon, QMUL. This article originally appeared on the CS4FN website.

Smart electricity meters are clever meters that are connected to the Internet so they can send data back to the power company about your minute by minute electricity usage for billing purposes. If burglars could get hold of data from a smart electricity meter they can tell whether you are in or not (See Smart meter snooping).

How could anyone other than the power company get the data though? A German research team led by Dario Carluccio decided to see if it was possible. They have shown that the data from at least one kind of smart meter can be intercepted by anyone with the right software. Data needs to be encrypted – transmitted using an uncrackable code – to be safe from prying eyes. For the smart meter they examined that wasn’t done securely. They could not only intercept the data, they could even tamper with what was sent back to the company, which could be used, for example to lower their bills. All you needed was what is known as the ‘MAC address‘ of the smart meter. A MAC address is just the unique network name that a computer uses to identify itself- all computers connecting to the Internet have one. Unless special security is used any computer can pretend it is some other computer just by using the target computer’s MAC address when asked to identify itself. With the smart meter to send bogus data you essentially just need to get another computer to use the smart meter’s MAC address before sending data. The researchers demonstrated this by change the electricity usage data in a way that made the graph of peaks and troughs of usage read the message “U have been hacked”!

(A device’s MAC address is used locally, to identify it to your home broadband whereas the IP address identifies your device to the internet so that it can receive information from anyone, anywhere).

The creation of this post was funded by UKRI, through grant EP/K040251/2 held by Professor Ursula Martin, and forms part of a broader project on the development and impact of computing.


6. Previous Advent Calendar posts

CS4FN Advent – Day 1 – Woolly jumpers, knitting and coding (1 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 2 – Pairs: mittens, gloves, pair programming, magic tricks (2 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 3 – woolly hat: warming versus cooling (3 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 4 – Ice skate: detecting neutrinos at the South Pole, figure-skating motion capture, Frozen and a puzzle (4 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 5 – snowman: analog hydraulic computers (aka water computers), digital compression, and a puzzle (5 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 6 – patterned bauble: tracing patterns in computing – printed circuit boards, spotting links and a puzzle for tourists (6 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 7 – Computing for the birds: dawn chorus, birds as data carriers and a Google April Fool (plus a puzzle!) (7 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 8: gifts, and wrapping – Tim Berners-Lee, black boxes and another computing puzzle (8 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 9: gingerbread man – computing and ‘food’ (cookies, spam!), and a puzzle (9 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 10: Holly, Ivy and Alexa – chatbots and the useful skill of file management. Plus win at noughts and crosses – (10 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 11: the proof of the pudding… mathematical proof (11 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 12: Computer Memory – Molecules and Memristors – (12 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 13: snowflakes – six-sided symmetry, hexahexaflexagons and finite state machines in computing (13 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 14 – Why is your internet so slow + a festive kriss-kross puzzle (14 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 15 – a candle: optical fibre, optical illusions (15 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 16: candy cane or walking aid: designing for everyone, human computer interaction (16 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 17: reindeer and pocket switching (17 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 18: cracker or hacker? Cyber security(18 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 19: jingle bells or warning bells? Avoiding computer scams (19 December 2021)


CS4FN Advent – Day 20: where’s it @? Gift tags and internet addresses – this post




6 thoughts on “CS4FN Advent – Day 20: where’s it @? Gift tags and internet addresses

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