Solipsism Gradient

Rainer Brockerhoff’s blog

Browsing Posts tagged History

Newly Digital

No comments

Adam Kalsey is asking people to write about their early computing experiences, so of course I’ll have to goof off and write about mine instead of packing for our Europe trip icon_wink.gif. I was thinking of starting a series of notes for future biographers, anyway…

Sometime in 1967, while browsing at a local library I stumbled upon Elliott Organick‘s “A FORTRAN Primer”, and immediately realized this was hot. I promptly bought Organick’s more up-to-date “FORTRAN IV” and proceeded to learn it forward, backward and sideways. As I had no computer available, I typed my programs on long rolls of paper on an old Olivetti Linea typewriter and tried to single-step and debug them by hand. I remember doing factorials with many digits and other number puzzles from Martin Gardner‘s column in Scientific American.

The next year I casually mentioned the matter to my math teacher, who immediately sent me to the local university’s Engineering School, where they had a IBM 1130 mainframe. This was housed in a large air-conditioned room. The IBM 1131 CPU used magnetic core memory: 8K words of 16 bits each (later expanded to 16KW). The clock frequency was 280 KHz. The CPU also housed a 500KW magnetic cartridge drive and a keyboard with a Selectric-type “golf ball” printer. Other peripherals were the IBM 1442 card read-punch, the IBM 1132 line printer, a pair of paper tape read/punch units, and my personal favorite, the IBM 1627 plotter.

I immediately enrolled in keypunch and FORTRAN classes (with a special dispensation as I wasn’t a student), and began to pester the local staff to cadge computing time. After first getting the factorial calculator to run, I started to write a program for the plotter, inspired by yet another Scientific American article; over several months it evolved into a complex kludge, drawing an arbitrary number of (possibly intersecting) ellipsoids in 3D space from any vantage point, with hidden-line removal. Being unaware of existing hidden-line removal algorithms I tried to solve it by trigonometry, which worked but became extremely slow for the more interesting cases.

The next year I entered the school officially as an Electrical Engineering student, and promptly became attracted by a free systems analysis course to be offered by IBM. This was a 2-hours per day, every weekday, 9-month course sponsored by the university; 20 students were selected from over 200 applicants, and I placed second. The course was excellent, and the two best students were offered an internship at the university’s main computing center, so I made sure to place first…

CECOM, the computing center, at the time had an even older mainframe: the IBM 1401. The CPU had 4000 bytes of core memory; each byte had 6 BCD data bits, a parity bit, and a “word mark” bit to flag the end of a variable-length field; clock frequency was about 83 KHz. The only peripherals were a card read-punch and a line printer, and programming was in Autocoder (assembly) or machine language. It was already obsolete and soon was replaced by a IBM/360-40, itself replaced a few years later by a Burroughs B6700, which remained in use for 13 years. Amazingly, I can’t locate any photo or reference manual of this machine.

The B6700 was huge. The CPU had 800K of semiconductor (static) memory, which was state-of-the-art at the time and had a 800ns access time, if I recall correctly. It also had a 10MB fixed disk drive for virtual memory and operating system bootstrap; this had one magnetic head per track with several huge platters revolving on a horizontal axis. There were half a dozen magnetic tape units, removable disk packs (100MB each), and several fast line printers and card readers; later on about a dozen video terminals were installed. The B6700 had a very interesting architecture, with 51-bit words: 48 data bits which could be interpreted as 6 characters, as well as 3 tag bits which defined the word format. There were different formats for instruction words, address pointers for integers and floats, strings, and stack pointers. The machine was stack-oriented and and had no assembly language; the MCP operating system was written in an Algol dialect called ESPOL. As we had full source code for the MCP and for the compilers, I had a merry time – for several years, it turned out – hacking around and learning about operating system and compiler design.

In 1977 I acquired an Apple II and left the mainframe world. More in the next chapter…

Shelley “BurningBird” Powers asks:

Question to the thousands who saw the World of Ends as a new definitive answer for the foolish masses who don’t ‘know’ the Internet: Exactly what will you do differently, today, after reading this essay, then you did yesterday before reading this essay? Just curious, is all.

Well, I’ve spent part of two days translating WoE, and alerting friends and the press to it. Obviously, I think it’s an important piece of work; not that I agree 100% with it, but its most important function – reawakening discussion of what the Internet is all about – is being well-exercised. I wish I had something like WoE in 1993/4, when I built one of Brazil’s first ISPs, and tried to:

1) Convince the academics that there was a place for the commercial Internet:

Me: I’d like to operate a commercial Internet provider.

They: The Internet is tuned to research and education! Commercial messages will sully its sacred purpose!

2) Convince Embratel – the state company which at the time had a monopoly on international communications, with two 9600 bps lines coming into São Paulo and one 64K bps line into Rio de Janeiro – that the Internet wouldn’t be just a TELEX replacement:

Me: I want a data line to my office.

They: OK. It’s US$500/month for a 2400-baud line, plus US$0.01 per 64-byte data packet.

Me (scraping my jaw off the floor): But what if a client wants to download a 1-megabyte file???

They: Don’t worry, this will never happen.

3) Convince companies that they should have an Internet connection:

They: Install a trial connection on this computer here, please.

Me: It will need a modem and a phone line.

They: What? That’s impossible. We pay enough phone charges already!

4) Convince companies that they should have a web page:

Me: So people can just read you page and see your product catalog.

They: And how will our salesman know who they are, so he can visit them?

Me: You won’t need traveling salesmen anymore; and you’ll get customers from all over the country!

They: Why would we want to?

5) Convince people (people over 18, that is) that they need an e-mail address:

Me: You’ll be able to write to anybody in the world; in Japan or the USA, for example, and get a response on the same day!

They: But I don’t know anybody in Japan or the USA!

The reactions to WoE on the Web have been very interesting. Obviously there’s been a lot of mindless, me-too on-the-bandwagon jumping, which can be discounted. Equally discountable are the kneejerk reactions against “technohippie” ravings, and the worldweary bullshit-business-as-usual dismissals.

Although I’m proud to consider myself a technohippie – in the sense that I believe that in the long run, and with proper caution, the Internet and technology in general will be a positive force – I don’t think that WoE is all naïvely idealistic and therefore impractical. Perhaps this part is the most naïve:

The government types who have confused the value of the Internet with the value of its contents could realize that in tinkering with the Internet’s core, they’re actually driving down its value. In fact, they maybe could see that having a system that transports all bits equally, without government or industry censorship, is the single most powerful force for democracy and open markets in history.

In my experience, only politicians campaigning for reelection praise democracy and open markets. Any other “government type”, down to the lowliest clerk, is usually deathly afraid of both democracy and open markets, and making these people aware of the Internet’s power in this regard may well have the opposite effect of what WoE intends.

Technical people seem to mostly take issue with specific points: disagreeing with calling the Internet’s complex infrastructure ‘stupid’, arguing for priority mechanisms for audio/video streaming, pointing out exceptions for mechanisms that can’t be end-point implementations, calling attention to non-discussed issues like spam and virii, and so forth. Many of these objections are valid, but such concepts have to simplified (perhaps even oversimplified) so non-technical people don’t stop reading too soon. It’s telling that many a tech’s comments considered WoE both obvious and unnecessary.

I take some issue with WoE’s form while understanding somewhat why they wrote it that way. Using short words, short sentences, trying to make each sentence quotable, making lists of 10 points, making the same point repeatedly; these are well-known techniques to write for the great unwashed public. At the same time, this often comes off superficial and patronizing for people who do have more than two neurons to knock together. Personally, I wish the piece were longer and went more into philosophical points. Perhaps we need different versions for journalist, record company executives, politicians and techies? Hmm…

Continua a história do Zé Megabyte e seu fiel Jaca Plus, agora ocupado por um software de inteligência artificial. Será que Itaipú está mesmo na Internet? E porque “em tese”?

Alguns comentários:

  • Houve alguns meses de intervalo entre este episódio e os anteriores. Era 1988; o projeto Unitron tinha sido suprimido; e recebi 3 diskettes com novos personagens.
  • Este foi o último episódio publicado, o jornal fechou (não por minha culpa, decerto). Aceito sugestões para novos episódios… quem sabe? Cartas para a Redação!

Continua a história do Zé Megabyte e seu fiel Jaca Plus, agora ocupado por um software de inteligência artificial. Você já viu jacaré usando cílios postiços, por falar nisso?

Alguns comentários:

    O Departamento de Estado Americano havia ameaçado cortar a importação de suco de laranja e (eu acho) sapatos provenientes do Brasil… aconteceu o previsível.
    O projeto da Unitron foi revendido a uma empresa de Taiwan. C’est la vie…

E, claro, ainda se falava “micro” naquela época… 🙂

Continua a história do Zé Megabyte e seu fiel Jaca Plus, agora ocupado por um software de inteligência artificial. Você deixaria um político lhe dizer qual computador usar? Era normal naquela época… hoje muitos deixam um bilionário lhes dizer isso…;)

Alguns comentários:

    Bom, a situação do projeto da Unitron estava ficando crítica. A pressão americana estava começando e parece que havia até receio de mencionar o nome do projeto na imprensa.
    Alguém pode confirmar isso? Parece que o Mac Unitron foi exibido na Feira Nacional de Informática sem sua caixa característica, super-parecida com o Mac Plus, para não parecer tão “parecido”. Tem parecência demais nesta sentença… mas qualquer parecência era mera semelhança…

Continua a história do Zé Megabyte e seu fiel Jaca Plus, agora ocupado por um software de inteligência artificial. Você deixaria um software inteligente examinar o conteúdo do seu “winchester” [termo arcaico para “HD”]? Eu, hein…

Alguns comentários:

    Bom, passamos da fase introdutória e agora começam os casos interessantes. Eu estava ficando animado com a tirinha…
    Outra previsão acertada : “declaração via modem”. Errei no nome, não se chama “Declaração do Imposto de Renda” e sim “Declaração de Renda”. Você sabia?

Continua a história do Zé Megabyte e seu fiel Jaca Plus, agora ocupado por um software de inteligência artificial. Fuçar na Internet dá nisso, certo? Cadê o antivírus?

Alguns comentários:

    Na verdade, o episódio inicial teve que ser dividido em dois, e esta é a segunda parte. Por algum motivo estranho, o jornal não quis me ceder uma página inteira…icon_smile.gif
    As implicações filosóficas aqui são interessantes. Piratear um software de inteligência artificial é equivalente à clonagem? A segunda cópia tem os mesmos direitos que o original? Isso inclui direitos trabalhistas? E se houver um pique de luz…?

O Zé Megabyte foi um personagem que surgiu em 1987. Para colocar as coisas em perspectiva, Steve Jobs havia saído há dois anos. Jean-Louis Gassée era o chefão de tecnologia na Apple. O Mac SE e o Mac II haviam sido lançados com estardalhaço. No Brasil, a Unitron estava trabalhando no Mac Unitron…

Eu havia comprado, na MacWorld de San Francisco em 1987, um software muito simpático para desenho de histórias em quadrinhos – o “Comic Strip Factory“. Logo depois, um jornalzinho de informática aqui de Belo Horizonte (nem me lembro mais do nome, infelizmente) me chamou para fazer uma coluna mensal; ofereci-me para também fazer uma tirinha. Este é o primeiro episódio :

Alguns comentários :

  • O software só permitia fazer desenhos em preto&branco a 72 dpi. O arquivo final era em formato MacPaint (quem se lembra…?) O tamanho era exato para uma página tablóide.
  • A idéia dos personagens veio de uma tirinha parecida publicada na época do Apple ][ numa revista chamada “SoftSide”. Não lembro o nome do autor, mas era bem bom.
  • Interessante que na época eu já previa a difusão da Internet… a velocidade não era muito realista, confesso: 8 horas para baixar um arquivo de 287MB significa 10.2 KBytes/segundo. Quem sabe o Zézinho já tinha ISDN? De qualquer modo, a “pesquisa rotineira pelos bancos de dados” “depois da meia-noite” realmente parece familiar.
  • O copyright incluia Trici Venola e Kurt Wahlner, autores do software, porque eles forneciam fundos pré-desenhados e partes anatômicas dos personagens. Assim ficava fácil para mesmo um não-artista como eu fazer uma tirinha. Só fiz pequenas adaptações.
  • O nome “Jaca Plus” já era influenciado pelo projeto Unitron. Parece que chegaram a pensar em alguma fruta nacional mas nenhuma era suficientemente marketável sem piadinhas… outrossim, notem a “pressão das multinacionais”.
  • Um dos manuais acima do Jaca Plus tem o título “Hiperjaca”. É uma referência ao HyperCard, que acabava de ser lançado.

De resto, senti que deveria haver um episódio inicial para apresentar os personagens ao leitor. Ficou meio grande. Mas, até que para marinheiro de primeira viagem não está embaraçoso demais… icon_wink.gif

Photos licensed by Creative Commons license. Unless otherwise noted, content © 2002-2022 by Rainer Brockerhoff. Iravan child theme by Rainer Brockerhoff, based on Arjuna-X, a WordPress Theme by SRS Solutions. jQuery UI based on Aristo.