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Comment Re:The luddite's Google: Card catalogs (Score 4, Interesting) 277

Yes, in the 1960s there was a conference entitled INTREX, for Information Transfer Experiments, that was sort of about library-like computer systems. One of the papers was a thoughtful examination of what it meant to "browse" in a library and how one would build a computerized "browsery." I don't know if any such thing was ever implemented, but it seems like a problem that hasn't been solved.

All the computer types assume that you want to do a targeted search and know what you are trying to find. All I can say is, I learned so much by going into the stacks to find specific book X and getting distracted by all the interesting books on related topics on the shelves around it.

Comment Amazing... shocking... sad. (Score 2) 2

Altavista was a revelation... it was so much better, faster, and more comprehensive than Infoseek. However, there was a problem with relevance--you might have to wade through hundreds of results before getting to the one you wanted.

Of course, within weeks of the launch of Google, I found that Google seemed to be just as comprehensive, but (in those days) usually found the sought page within the first few entries.

Even so, the death of Altavista is as seemingly unbelievable as the death of... Lehman Brothers, or Pan Am, or Digital Equipment Corporation.

Comment Educational perennialism (Score 1) 564

When I was at MIT in the sixties, all undergraduates were required to take four semesters of "Humanities," in which we read chunks of Plato, the Bible, St. Augustine, Shakespeare (King Lear, I remember) and I-forget-what-all. The current requirements actually are eight semesters properly distributed in "HASS," Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and perhaps some current student will be able to say more about what that amounts to.

It wasn't a waste of time but I've never been really sure about the whole Great Books, "core" curriculum, Western canon thing. I think I learned much more about having a skeptical attitude from my science and engineering profs and from my fellow students than I did from my humanities courses. Science as taught at MIT then was not at all an authoritarian dispensation of knowledge.

The doctrine of the permanent value of certain "Great" works is sometimes called "educational perennialism," and reaches a high degree of development at St. John's College, Annapolis, where all subjects, including the sciences, are taught directly from original source texts. By all accounts it turns out well-qualified students although I'm not sure how many of them go on to engineering careers.

There is a certain arbitrary character to it. It took me a long time to figure out what the big deal about Latin and Greek was. In high school I took Latin and my understanding was that learning Latin would teach logical thought, and put me into contact with "great" works. Gradually I figured out that the reason why public high schools have Latin was that they were imitating prep schools; prep schools taught Latin because it was once an admissions requirement to Harvard; Harvard required Latin because it was imitating Oxford; Oxford required Latin because it had historic ties to the Church of England, and the Church of England was an offshoot of the Catholic-in-the-large sense church, which in turn spoke Latin (in the West) and Greek (in the East). There was also, I guess, some authentic personal enthusiasm on the part of some well-educated Brits in the 1800s for the "classics," i.e. they got a kick out of reading Horace's take on things, but I think it was mostly a cultural and historic heritage from the Church.

How many Victorian-era colleges taught Arabic so that students would be able to read al-KhwÄrizmÄ in the original, I wonder?

Comment Re:Assembly programmer. (Score 4, Interesting) 336

If you want to get technical: the language was MACRO-11. Which is an example of an assembly language. I program in "C#", not in "compiler."

In the Digital world, the name "MACRO" stuck because there were very early assemblers for the PDP-1 that did not have macro capability. So "MACRO" was the name for the assembler that did. In subsequent machine generations, "the" assembler was usually called MACRO even though as far as I know there weren't any assemblers without macro capabilities.

And perhaps I should add: the reason that it's called assembly language is because of drum memory. The usage dates back AT LEAST to the IBM 650 and Symbolic Optimal Assembly Language (SOAP). "Assembly" was short for "optimal assembly." Each instruction contained within it the address of the next instruction--they weren't sequential--and "optimal assembly" was the process of calculating how long each instruction would take so that the next instruction could be placed at the right location on the drum that it would be almost under the head when the last instruction had completed. "Optimal assembly" was the memory placement aspect of it.

The symbolic optimal assembly program added to that the advanced capability of allowing programmers to refer to instruction codes by convenient, easy-to-remember mnemonics like UFA and STA, as well as the capability of giving your very own names to instruction locations.

For some reason, the category name got abbreviated to "assembler" rather than "symbol-" um... symbolizer? Symbolic? OK, maybe THAT reason... and it stuck, even after advanced computers like the IBM 704 started to have random-access memory.

Comment Name, address of eBay CEO (Score 2) 318

PayPal is a subsidiary of eBay. The CEO's name is John Donahue. I've written to him. If anyone else wants to:

John Donahue
CEO, eBay
2055 Hamilton Ave
San Jose, CA 95125

It's my belief that as of 2013, a personal letter, written in ink on physical paper in an envelope with a stamp, sent by USPS, has more impact than e-communication or online petitions.

Submission + - Oh. Snap. Is the iWatch going to be a snap bracelet? (

stinkymountain writes: Apple watcher and lawyer Yoni Heisler digs up some Apple patent filings and finds a series of designs that show a wrist watch with a `snap bracelet' form factor and a flexible display that allows the device to fit snugly on different sized wrists. Also, there's a indication that Apple might use kinetic energy to help charge the device.

Comment And a tip of the hat to Context MBA (Score 1) 276

Oh, my, sic transit Gloria mundi. I don't think anyone ever called it "Lotus 1-2-3," it was just "Lotus..." nobody knew that or if Lotus had any other product. But let's also take time for a tip of the hat to the utterly forgotten Context MBA.

"Integrated software" was very much in the air then. In fact for many years, and contrary to popular belief at the time, Appleworks outsold Lotus 1-2-3, but was "invisible" because it was sold directly by Apple while the bestseller lists were compiled from sales by distributors like Ingram and Corporate Software.

I believe Context MBA actually preceded Lotus 1-2-3, and was a very, very impressive achievement at the time. In addition to 1-2-3's three functions, it also had a reasonably capable low-end word processor--think WordPad--and a decent communications package/terminal emulator (you could use it to download data to put into the spreadsheet). It had a decent user interface and a high degree of integration--it wasn't just a suite. But it had an interesting Achilles heel: it was written in UCSD Pascal for portability.

"Portability" was sort of trendy at the time, because there was such a zoo of incompatible PC architectures. (The shakeout and dominance of the IBM PC architecture happened with surprising speed). Pascal and C vied for language of choiceCoding for portability had worked wonderfully well for Multiplan, Microsoft's spreadsheet. In a world of dozens of incompatible personal computer architectures, Microsoft could deliver Multiplan quickly on everything. (I remember a friend using it on his Commodore 64). But it imposed a performance penalty, which for some reason wasn't too bad with Multiplan but was with Context MBA, and it ran sluggishly on the IBM PC.

Lotus took the diametrically opposite track, writing in assembly language and often breaking the rules and bypassing OS and BIOS to write directly to the hardware. Lotus 1-2-3 actually became a standard informal test of PC compatibility; it wouldn't run on anything that wasn't a very faithful clone of the PC. Because of its speed, it virtually erased Context MBA from the market and from collective memory.

My personal limited experience with Context MBA was on an HP9800, a 68000-based 1981-vintage $10,000 desktop computer intended for scientific and technical applications, with good HP-IB (IEEE-488) capability. On that platform, Context MBA ran well and was a solid and very likable piece of software.

Comment Bezos originally said the same thing. (Score 1) 207

Can't find the quotation, but early on he was very clear on Amazon having focussed on books, for what seemed like very good reasons. As I recall, the point was that there were humongous numbers of titles--far more than any physical bookstore could stock; there was a well-structured database of them--Bowker's Books In Print; shipping size and weights were manageable; and there were straightforward and fairly speedy mechanisms to get any book in print from any publisher--you or I might have trouble ordering directly from a publisher, but a modest-sized business like a bookstore or like Amazon did not.

As I recall, he said that it was much more suitable business than CDs, I think because the number of books in print was far higher than the number of CDs "in print."

He gave what SEEMED like a very convincing case for books being uniquely suited to Internet commerce. I remember being very surprised when they branched out into consumer goods.

Comment Electric recording is no substitute for acoustic (Score 1) 166

Electric recording has a harsh sound that can't compare with the human warmth of direct, acoustically-recorded 78-rpm shellac.

Although direct acoustical recording has a peaky response, the peaks occur in just the right places to make the sound richer.

There is no upper frequency cutoff at all. Logically, ultrasonic frequencies must move the recording stylus and make some impression on the disk, an impression that can be heard even if it can't be seen or measured. These homeopathic doeses of ultra-high-frequency sound explain the airy "open" feeling never experienced with vinyl LPs.

A pair of ticks separated by 1800 milliseconds on an LP distract your attention and spoil the sonic experience, but you can listen "through" a steady continuous series of ticks at 767-millisecond intervals on a scratched 78, because due to the endless repetition you can anticipate and ignore them.

Finally, and most important, when you drop a 78 on edge and it instantly shatters into three wedges held together at their points by the label, the sharp pang of sudden loss makes you feel how valuable and precious these disks are, giving you an emotional connection you can never have with unbreakable vinyl.

Comment That's because the vendors do a lousy job (Score 1) 418

I loved the VAX/VMS documentation. It was complete and it was accurate. I loved the original Inside Macintosh documentation; it interesting because it was complete, accurate, and _knowledgeable_. It took helpfully opinionated stances, like "Usually, you will set this argument to nil," or "Returns an integer value of 0 or 1. Only the Shadow knows why it is an integer rather than a boolean."

A couple of years ago I needed greyscale images, nothing fancy but using color was just silly, and wasted over a day trying to get Microsoft .NET PixelFormat.Format16bppGrayScale to work. It kept throwing exceptions and I was just going nuts, unable to figure out what I was doing wrong. Eventually I Googled, and found three-year-old forum postings explaining that Microsoft had never implemented that functionality. But in three years, they couldn't be bothered to remove it from their symbol tables or to update their documentation to at least indicate that it was "reserved for future implementation" or something.

Look for yourself: the online documentation still shows it as available. "The pixel format is 16 bits per pixel. The color information specifies 65536 shades of gray."

Mac OS X is just as bad. The so-called documentation looks and feels as if it were automatically built from header files.

Forum postings and crowd-sourced chatter is great--it's where I learned what I needed to know about PixelFormat.Format16bppGrayScale--but it's not a substitute for documentation. And, by the way, neither is sample code--it is valuable in show what works--or worked at the time it was written--but it does not show you the limitations or the boundaries, and nobody takes any responsibility for its future accuracy.

Comment Earlier IDEs (Score 3, Informative) 181

Without even trying to do any historic digging:

Asymetrix Toolbook shipped "with" Windows well before VB. In fact the company I worked for foolishly assumed it was "part of" Windows. Toolbook, in turn, was not exactly a knockoff of HyperCard, but was certainly a member of the same genre.

LabView for the Macintosh shipped in 1986, and not only still exists but has a very solid niche in some circles. LabView is such a pure visual IDE that there are not visible lines of code as such; it is all wiring diagrams.

Bill Budge's 1983 Pinball Construction Set, for the Apple ][ and Atari, was certainly an IDE, although for a restricted class of applications.

Incidentally, it seems to me that the later incarnations of Visual Studio are considerably less "integrated" than the original Visual Basic was. Visual Studio has the feeling to me of being no more "integrated" than, say, Borland C++ or the (1985) MacPascal. Unlike VB, it just had a fairly crude resource-editor-like "drawing" environment. It feels OK when you're creating things for the first time, but the visual objects do not really "contain" code--they have a very loose and fragile connection to the code associated with them.

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