Sunday, June 29, 2008

More about Modcomp:

In my previous post about Modcomp, I mentioned that -- as far as I know -- they were the only mid-70's computer company that routinely revised its computers by replacing chips and rewiring wires. All of Modcomp's competitors made upgrades and hardware fixes by replacing entire boards. (We're talking foot-square boards, there was less miniaturiation in those days.) Modcomp's approach was much more flexible and dynamic, but -- let's be frank -- it was wrong.

First, as I mentioned, Modcomp issued corrections every week. At that torrid pace, you have to suspect that they were introducing problems as fast as they fixed them. There could not be time to run careful tests on each week's combination of fixes before publishing them. Even if the fixes were good, they still had to be performed correctly on your computer. You had to hope that every wire was rewired correctly, and it's easy to attach a wire to the wrong pin.

Second, Modcomp had to perform most of the wiring changes for its customers. They paid a lot to get the rare people who knew how to do this fieldwork and were willing to travel, and to try to be deadly accurate. Paying maintenance guys to swap boards was cheaper, simpler and safer, and required far less qualified people.

Now here's an interesting note. Our company agreed on a set of critical changes with Modcomp that required an entire forty hours of rewiring. They sent a young woman to us, to make these changes. They told us they had learned that men were too impatient to do a lot of rewiring accurately. All their top repair people were women.

Friday, June 27, 2008

A software company catches fire:

My mid-1970's computer company caught fire and burned, for possibly as much as twenty seconds. If you're wondering, I can assure you: you never want to experience any kind of malicious fire.

In those days we used electrostatic printers. They spilled a fixer on special paper and the printer burned dots into the papers. The print stayed visible for a year or two before fading into uselessness. The fixer was nonflammable. But apparently, if a tiny leak allowed it to form a cloud over the printer's power supply, eventually it would start a flash fire. The fire consumed all the oxygen in the building very quickly, and after those first twenty seconds it probably just simmered a bit.

It was our practice to run 500 page printouts overnight, so the fire happened about 2 a.m. with no one there. The guy who left at 1 a.m. said "Gee, I wish I had been there, maybe I could have done something." Had he been there, he probably would have died.

I arrived the next morning to find mini-computers smoking in the parking lot. Firetrucks were there, and the windows were black with smoke. A new employee started work that day. He stood there looking at the mess. I would have understood if he had quit on the spot, but he stayed and worked there for four years.

The company survived the fire because, one week before, they had shipped a brace of computers and software to a prime customer. If those computers had been caught in the fire, they could not have been shipped and there would have been no cashflow cushion, nothing to tide us over until insurance money came in.

Everything smelled of smoke. There were plastic knobs in the ceiling to adjust vents, and the knobs nearest the fire now looked like stalactites. The computers closest to the fire looked just awful. But their only problem was that their plastic exteriors had melted. New plastic was put in place, and we used those machines for years.

Several Modcomp machines were twenty feet from the fire, and they worked fine afterwards. But the Modcomp company was kind enough to warn us that these computers would all fail disastrously after about three months, because the acid smoke had caused uncorrectable damage to their printed circuit boards. Their machines all failed as predicted, but there was insurance money to replace them.

We did no programming for weeks. Removable disk packs -- lots of them -- had to be opened and cleaned. Card decks -- thousands of punch cards -- had to be cleaned. Everything had to be cleaned. After about six weeks the office stopped smelling of smoke, and we started to program again.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Modcomp: Chips and Wires ...

In the mid 1970's, my company used mini computers made by a company called Modcomp. This was no ordinary company. For one thing, I remember hearing that one or two of their executives was wanted for accounting fraud. For another, the names for the Modcomp computer instructions were designed by an alien from outer space, and were generally less mnemonic than for other computers. Typical instruction names in those days were: JUMPL (jump to another address if result is less than zero); LB (load byte); ADD (add). In Modcompese, I'll bet you wouldn't guess what the SUM instruction did; that's right, it SU-btracted, storing the result in M-emory.
But that's not important now. Modcomp, unlike all of its competitors, built their minicomputers with chips that could easily be removed and replaced. (Take just a moment and savor the fact that in this, Modcomp differed from ALL of its competitors. Perhaps they knew something that Modcomp didn't know.) Chip replacement made it easy for Modcomp to upgrade machines and fix computer bugs, and they issued correction sheets all the time. Typically a bug was fixed by replacing a few chips, removing and rewiring a few wires. (There were printed circuit boards in the 70s, but typically every mini had lots and of real wires as well.)

At that time my company was developing software for a large oil company to control waste in a refinery plant. We bought the Modcomp mini-computers, sold them to our customer, and held on to them for many months while we developed the software for them. One day our customer mentioned a contract clause we had totally ignored: "You're keeping the computers up to date, right? All the upgrades and bug fixes?"

There was an awesome mound of fix-sheets in our director's desk drawer that we had never applied. He sorted through these, suspecting that some of them must be obsolete already. Eventually we forced a meeting with our customer and the director of the Modcomp fixups division, to decide what fixes must be applied, both now and in the future.

The Modcomp guy was proud of the intense rate at which his company issued fixes. He saw this process as insurance that the computers were as good as possible, although I suspect you will come to a different conclusion. At the meeting, discussion focused on the amount of time needed to take a computer out of service to apply each weekly batch of fixes. Finally our director confronted the Modcomp guy: "You're telling me that we'll have to take our computers out of service more than forty hours a week to keep them current?"
After some hemming and hawing, the Modcomp guy agreed. It was an astounding moment. Our customer agreed that we could apply only the most important fixes, to be determined by Modcomp, so that we could finish writing our programs for them.

I wonder how many fixes were added after the computer went into production at the customer plant. They wanted to run 24/7.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Watch habits:

last Last Thursday's blog entry was about shifting my watch from my left wrist to my right. I can see already that this change in a life-long habit will be harder to manage than learning to thread my belt in the opposite direction. My new wrist position conflicts with three other life-long habits, two of which I'm happy to mention here.

What do you do when you're not sure that you remembered to put on your watch? When this thought hits me, I run my right hand up my left arm to feel for my watch. All that does now, is to give me a better view of my right wrist.

Do you take your watch off to wash dishes? I don't. But to be safe, I've developed a habit of keeping my right hand more in the water, and my left hand more out. My watch runs more risk of getting wet now.

But, some of you will ask, isn't your watch “water resistant”? It is, but what does that mean? I imagine myself writing a letter to Cadex saying, “My watch got wet and now it doesn't work.” And Cadex writes back to me, “Oh, our watches aren't that water resistant.”

Sunday, June 22, 2008

2500 Square feet of Gravel:

We've lived near the university, and walked across its grounds, for many years. It's always a little depressing when more of the campus greenery is plowed under to make room for new buildings, but the university flourishes, so losing grass is inevitable.

Recently a strip of grass near a new building was ripped up. Gravel was laid there, and -- from the look of it -- pressed down with a steam roller. I used to walk through that grass strip, and for the last two weeks I've walked over the new gravel instead. I calculated its size, and that's why the title of this item mentions 2,500' sq. It was hard to figure out why they laid this gravel. I thought it might become a small parking lot, but there was no entrance to it. In the last two weeks I once saw a truck that had climbed the curb to park there.

Well today the gravel is gone, plowed under. That same strip of land is now a sea of big dirt clods. I wonder what they're going to do next, but right now, it looks like somebody turned a strip of land into gravel by mistake.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Micro-adjusting my watch band:

I'm still happy with the new Cadex watch I told you about on April 18th. But its watchband is not ideal for me. It's psuedo-leather with buckle-holes in it. I almost always wear my watch on my left wrist, and the correct hole to stick the buckle in would be third from the end. There's a horizontal band that you push up to lock the pin into its hole. (I'm not describing this well, but this arrangement is very common in watchbands.) The band does not hold well at the third hole, so I could lose the watch. And the fourth hole is too tight. And there's no in between.

But I happen to know that my right wrist is narrower than my left. So I've given up on a lifetime habit, and I'm learning to wear my watch on my right wrist, where the fourth hole is perfect.

Strangely, this is the second lifetime habit that I've given up in a year. I wear my PDA, mp3 player, flash memory and phone in little packs that I hang on my belt. The belt goes through loops on these little packs, so the there's no chance the packs can fall off, except for the pack at the open end of my belt (where the belt-holes are). When I open my belt (in a bathroom, say), I might be spacey enough to fail notice a pack sliding off my belt. That means the important, expensive stuff has to go at the other end of my belt, where the buckle makes it impossible to lose anything. But the buckle-part of my belt was always on my left, and I wanted the unloseable stuff to be on my right! So I reversed my belt. After a liftime of threading my belt one way around my waist, I've had to learn to thread it the other way. Getting used to that took weeks. But I haven't lost anything, so it must have been worth the effort.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Triumph for the 36-watt CFL:

You've heard me carp about the new compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Well, they're not nearly all bad, and here's a case where a CFL made me happy.

There's a lamp in our front yard that used to have a conventional 40 watt bulb. It died recently, so I replaced it with a 36 watt CFL. That lamp will use a little less electricity now, while burning much brighter, but that's not the exciting part.

Each time this bulb burns out, I have to stand on tiptoe and reach up with my arm, yet down with my hand, to barely touch the old bulb to remove it. Screwing in the new bulb is just as awkward. But these CFLs: the more watts they use, the longer they are. It was easy to screw in the 36 watt CFL, and it will be just as easy to replace it with another, similar bulb, when the new one dies much, much sooner than the manufacturer claims.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Where would I look for ...

I've been carrying around an ID badge, and some papers, for an activity that I'd like to tell you about someday. I had a very nice bag to keep these items in, but I needed that bag for another purpose. I took my ID stuff out and did something really dreadful: I put it "where I couldn't possibly fail to find it."

I found it four weeks later, by which time I had admitted it was lost in my house and had gotten a duplicate ID. And then I found it. Really, I had put that stuff in a place where it couldn't be missed. But that's not good enough, is it? Not for me, anyway.

The next time I need to put something away for awhile, I hope I will do two things. One: I'll make a note in my email telling me where I've put it. And then ... Two: now this is my new idea: I'll try to imagine myself looking for this thing, and I'll put it where I think I would look. I'll let you know if that ever works.

Friday, June 13, 2008

I've been getting a lot of Nigerian news lately:

I'm not talking about spam. I have a new Nokia N800 PDA, and of course I want to get news about it. I set up a Google News Alert for "N800". After a few disastrous days, I changed that to: N800 -nigeria. 'N' is a money abbreviation in Nigeria, so I get news stories about anything costing n800. The "-nigeria" is not nearly a good enough filter. After all, in the US, we don't say "USA" every time we mention dollars. Unfortunately, "N800" seems to be a common amount of money in Nigerian news (in thousands or millions).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

I once performed a solo concerto with orchestra:

During the depression, there was federal money for all sorts of unlikely projects to keep people in work. Some musicians got a grant to build a Hurdy-Gurdy, the crank-driven instrument you've seen pictures of, that accompanies Italian Organ Grinders and monkeys. The grant covered writing out parts for one of Haydn's Hurdy-Gurdy concertos, and programming the Hurdy-Gurdy to play the two solo parts. (That's right, there were two solo parts, not one.)

The musicians on this project must have been a little puzzled about what they were doing, because they built the wrong instrument. The Hurdy-Gurdy of old is a violin with a round, spring-drive mechanism that continuously "bows" the strings, and a set of push-down pegs that play notes. It sounds pretty sickly, but it's a lot easier to manage than a real violin. Haydn wrote concertos for pairs of thiese old Hurdy-Gurdies. It was child's play to program the new windup H-G to play two notes at once, heck, it can play a lot more than that.

The conductor of the Columbia University undergrad orchestra, Howard Shanet, specialized in digging up unusual music, and this find was a humdinger. The orchestra parts were easy to play, and how hard is it to play a H-G? You just turn the crank handle at the right speed, and the notes come out. Shanet decided that the librarian of a music collection in Philadelphia, who had often loaned us orchestra parts, would get the reward of performing the concerto in concert. For rehearsal, Columbia orchestra's own librarian would play the H-G.

The first rehearsal was a disaster. It was almost impossible to crank the H-G at a "wrong" speed, but our librarian could not stay in synch with the orchesra. For some reason, the problem was immediately obvious only to me, and in between "takes" I tried to coach the librarian, but he just didn't "get" it. Finally, an impatient conductor snapped at me, "You know so much about it, you do it." I toook over the H-G part and all was well.

The problem was finding the downbeat. You had to crank the H-G once, all the way around, for each measure. It seemed to be "human nature" to crank DOWN for the first beat -- that would be six o'clock if you imagine the crank going around a clock circle -- but the first beat was actually on the way up, around ten o'clock. I played H-G for all the rest of the rehearsals.

The day before the concert was a tense time for me. I wanted to perform the concerto, and I thought I really ought to. What was the chance that the Philadelphia librarian would find the downbeat without a single rehearsal? If I may be frank, I would say that my tension came from this: I could not decide what ached me more: the risk that the Philly librarian would make a fool of himself; or my great desire to be the soloist.
Hours before the concert, Howard Shanet informed me that the Philly librarian would not be able to make it. I still wish I knew what he told the librarian during their phone call. Anyway, I had a ball.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lively Fishing Worms:

My father liked to fish, often using worms as bait. He would go outside in summer, about an hour after sunset, to collect the nightcrawlers that came out looking for mates. I remember some fun evenings joining him to catch worms. Dad experimented with media to store the worms until he was ready to fish. He found that the best way to keep them alive was to put them in a can with topsoil and coffee grounds.

One recent morning I had to go out and do things without benefit of my morning coffee. I got to thinking about these worms and suddenly it hit me: Of course they were lively, from all that caffeine!

Friday, June 06, 2008

$5000 or more ...

I can't resist mentioning this: a radio ad suggesting that you should call them if your credit card debt is "greater than $5000 or more." If my debt was infinity (greater than Aleph null, that is), I guess I would be eligible to call.

I understand their expression thus: Greater than [$5000 or more].

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Slip-sliding Soap:

In many hotel rooms, the bathtub/shower enclosure comes with built-in shelves for soap. These shelves lean downward just enough to drop every bar into the tub. They have always annoyed me, but last week I dscovered how to persuade my soap to stay put. Take a wet washcloth (most hotel rooms have too many of these, anyway) and plop it onto the little shelf. The cloth probably won't slide off. Then tuck your soap between the washcloth and the enclosure wall.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Audio Books on Playaway:

Our local library is renting out audio books on Playaway. You get a device that's smaller than 2" x 3" x 1/2". It has an entire book on it, and a few small buttons for control. It remembers where you are. Its small display shows you how many chapters you've read. You can adjust volume, and there's an equalizer. You stick it in your pocket, plug in your headphones, and listen.

It's much more convenient and versatile than CDs or tapes, or even a normal audio player. I recently drove a long trip, during which I had to switch CDs on the road. With Playaway, there's nothing to fiddle with, pop out or pop in. It's great. Ask your library to get Playaways.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Exhaustion (2):

I'm not as tired as I was yesterday, but I remember some other times of brain-driven exhaustion. I described yesterday how my brain can make me work young, like, oh, a fifty-year old. Here's another example of how I've driven myself like a young'un, recovering more and more slowly as I age.

I do a few really exhausting things once or twice a year, and I've been doing them for many years: I lead some of the Orthodox Jewish prayer services for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The goal of a good prayer service is entirely different from an opera production, but the demands are similar: you're on your feet and singing with dramatic intent for long periods of time.

Leading these services calls for lots of energy. The closing service of Yom Kippur, which starts after 24 hours of neither eating nor drinking, is particularly demanding. I started leading these services many years ago, so I know how to husband my strength. But I don't really have that strength anymore, it's just a feat of mind over body. I remember, about twenty years ago, an undergraduate leading a Yom Kippur service I had led the previous year. I could see him tire as the service went on. Afterward, he asked me, “Where do you get the energy?” I could tell him then; I can't tell him now, but that energy comes from somewhere when I need it.

The words are the same each year; the melodies are similar. As I harness myself to these familiar patterns, I feel the energy flow. It's incredible to know that I can call on all that strength; and fascinating to know that I'll spend days afterwards, paying my body back. All of you are going to have similar experiences. All it takes is a vigorous activity you don't want to leave behind you.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Exhaustion (1):

I'm 67, but last week I didn't feel a day over 50. We had a tough deadline to meet, and several times I worked late, slept a few hours and got up early. There was a mass of detail to attend to, and it felt great to see my younger self kick in, stay awake and alert, to help our team achieve an excellent finish. I knew I would pay later.

I've been catching up on my sleep, but – days later – I know I'm still exhausted. I swim regularly, and today I got really exhausted in 35 minutes. Last weekend, before the big push at work, I swam 45 fast, effortless minutes. So what's going on?

The fascinating thing is that, when you fall back into old habits, your body can summon up the strength that goes with those habits, even if you really don't have that strength anymore. You remember how to behave, how to do the task, and how to summon the energy. If in fact your body's too old for that, you pay it back later, with a much longer recovery time. Next time you see an oldster not acting their age, amazing you with their resources, maybe that's what's happening. Keep an eye on them later. For example:

Wow, I am tired.