Why there were no personal computers, or smartphones, in the 1960s

June 13, 2017

Love this photo. It says so much.

Science Magazine Tweet: 10 MB hard disk from the 1960s.

Science Magazine Tweet: 10 MB hard disk from the 1960s.

Who is the guy in the photo? Pretty sure it’s a contemporaneous picture of the historic artifact.



The wolf that keeps me from using Carbonite

December 5, 2011

A couple of computer crashes and a couple of stolen flashdrives convince me on-line storage might be a good idea.

How could anyone not appreciate a company like Carbonite, named after a Star Wars concept?

So, I wander to the company’s website, and I see this:

Rush Limbaugh endorses Carbonite on-line storage

Rush Limbaugh for Carbonite

Rush Limbaugh?  Seriously?

How can I buy Carbonite if it’s being pushed by Rush?

A century of IBM

June 23, 2011

IBM turned 100 years old last week, on June 16.

IBM logo, 100th anniversary plus the Selectric typewriter

An "element" from an IBM Selectric typewriter, incorporated into a logo celebrating IBM's 100th year

In our studies of the effects of technology in the 20th century, do we give enough information and deference about IBM?  The company surely is not familiar to high school students — seniors for the class of 2012 having been born circa 1994, long after the heyday of the IBM System 360, the once-ubiquitous data punch cards, and the astonishingly advanced Selectric typewriters.  IBM retired the Selectric in 1986, a year before our older son was born, nearly a decade before today’s high school seniors bounced into the world.  The IBM punch cards, introduced in 1928, became difficult to find by the time I was coaching debate at the University of Arizona (we used the cards for debate evidence because they were larger and lighter than index cards, as did many other people in other walks of life).  Computing power of the S/360 paled in comparison to minicomputers available by 1985, and especially in comparison to the desktop microcomputers that dominate our working world today.

I wonder what today’s high school students really understand of the computer revolution?  Do they understand the fundamental roles IBM played in inventing the 21st century?

IBM System 360 at NASA, circa 1969

Caption from IBM: "IBM System/360 at NASA The System/360 Model 75 processed data for the first lunar landing 240,000 miles away from the moon, at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. It was one of five System/360 machines used by NASA for the Apollo 11 mission and the same computer that later calculated liftoff data needed by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin for the flight back to Earth."

IBM occupies a particular fond spot in my heart.  Through the National Merit Scholarship program, I had my college paid for in great measure by a four-year grant from IBM, a Thomas J. Watson, Jr., Scholarship.  As I recall it was for about $5,000, much more than adequate for tuition and fees at the University of Utah at under $400/quarter.  Coupled with a more modest scholarship from Utah and my 40 hours/week job in a laboratory, my undergraduate years were financially easy compared to our sons’ studies today.

As a sort of thank-you, I was expected to make an annual trek to the IBM offices in Salt Lake City to report on my progress.  IBMers at the time were still very much on the white-shirt/blue-shirt plan, and the contrast between campus and the IBM office could scarcely have been more stark.  Despite their sponsoring my education, I could not convince IBM to give me a price break on my first IBM Correcting Selectric II; it was a major scrape to come up with the $740, full list price of the beast.

But what a great investment!  My apartment became term-paper central.  At the end of the quarter, I could go without  paying for a meal for two or three weeks.  I did have one apartment manager complain about women spending the night in my apartment, and I don’t think he believed me when I said they were working on term papers.  I had not expected the academic benefits of the machine:  My grades in broadcast classes rose with scripts submitted in easy-to-read Orator typeface; I’m convinced the lack of pencil-corrected errors added a full half-grade to other papers, too.

That typewriter finally succumbed to my unwillingness to pay for the annual servicing from IBM.  I think Kathryn donated it to the Salvation Army sometime after we got to Texas, after two decades of service.  I found another at a garage sale in about 2000, for $10, with six elements and a slew of ribbons and correctapes.  It also succumbed to a lack of service, though, and joined its predecessor at the Salvation Army five years ago.  I’d love to have a good working version today, still, though I can do almost everything it could do with a wordprocessor and a laser printer.

IBM System 360 coming to Japan - IBM image

Caption from IBM: "The System/360 Model 75 processed data for the first lunar landing 240,000 miles away from the moon, at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. It was one of five System/360 machines used by NASA for the Apollo 11 mission and the same computer that later calculated liftoff data needed by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin for the flight back to Earth. Two men standing on truck w/System/360 logo magnifying-glass IBM System/360 in Japan At Tokai Bank in Japan, all operations were performed manually, forcing employees to run calculations on abacuses into the late hours of the night. The arrival of the System/360 enabled the company to do away with abacuses and, in doing so, send employees home to spend more time with their families, drastically improving morale. Meanwhile, more work was completed in a shorter time frame, and customer satisfaction soared."

IBM’s leadership as a company runs much deeper than simply as an innovator in technology.  IBM for years had the best corporate training available — at American Airlines we benchmarked our training against IBM, when benchmarking was a tool of corporate improvement.  IBM’s people had the good sense to sit us down and explain they had benchmarked their own training against American’s pilot training, which they explained was the model for outstanding training:  Hire people who already know how to do the job, have a lot of experience, and love the work; train them intensively in the company ways and systems, and especially the machines they will use; use simulators to offer much more practice than can safely be had on the job; provide a mentor to monitor closely that the student (pilot) is doing the job right; require extensive refresher courses at least once a year.

At one point IBM had 20% growth in revenues for 20 consecutive years. IBM even figures in one of the great urban legends of the 20th century.  For the film of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, 2001:  A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick used a  computer as a central character.  The computer becomes the bad guy in the movie, however; the urban legend is that the company refused to let Kubrick use their logo.  So, the legend claims, Kubrick simply backed up one letter in the alphabet for each letter, and the nefarious HAL computer was born. Both Kubrick and Clarke denied that was the case, noting that HAL was a form of acronym for “Heuristic Algorithmic.”  They also note that IBM computers are pictured in the movie.  The story merely adds to the understanding that IBM was everywhere that technology or good management was found on the planet.

Despite having been eclipsed by its two partners in micro computers, Microsoft and Intel, IBM today offers yet another reinvention of itself, larger than it was when its fortunes were said to have collapsed, a few years before our high school students were born.

CBS Sunday Morning offered a short version of the company’s history on June 12 — fortunately, one of the items CBS posted on YouTube (they don’t put enough of the Sunday Morning stuff there, if you ask me).


Norton Security: Customer service fail

November 29, 2010

For the past two weeks I’ve been trying to get approval for a license I already paid for to work on my laptop.  Probably a dozen times I’ve gotten a message that I’ve been “updated,” or “approved,” or somesuch, but each morning when I boot up I get the nastygram from Norton that my “trial” security period is ended — or now, that I’m wholly unprotected.

Never mind that this is the 6th license I’ve bought from Norton in two years for two different computers.

Skroom.  Norton security is worthless if it doesn’t work after you’ve paid them several times.  Off to shop for something else.

And, just try to contact them.  E-mails go unanswered for weeks.  Phone calls are disconnected after 15 minutes of waiting, in the middle of some explanation for why you should be happy to be waiting.

Once upon a time I found Norton to be responsive and very useful.  Now Norton is merely the subject of great frustration.


BSA awards Bill Gates the Silver Buffalo

September 15, 2010

News came out during the Jamboree, but yesterday in Seattle the Boy Scouts of America made it tangibly official.

Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, Jr. received the Silver Buffalo Award, the highest honor BSA gives to any Scouter.

Gates was a Life Scout; his father, William Gates, Sr.,  is an Eagle Scout.  The awards ceremony was scheduled to include members of Gates’s Cub Scout Pack 144 and Boy Scout Troop 186.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates receiving the Silver Buffalo award from Boy Scouts of America. BBC image

Microsoft founder Bill Gates receiving the Silver Buffalo award from Boy Scouts of America. BBC image


Blogging longhand

August 29, 2010

From the Department of Education where my group was in charge of dragging the rest of the research branch into the computer age — putting computers on desks of contract managers for the first time, in most cases — I moved to American Airlines.  Though American boasted the best computer reservations system in the world, at headquarters my cubicle came with no computer, not even a typewriter.

I requested a typewriter to draft documents.  “That’s what we have secretaries for,” I was told.  “You draft longhand, let the secretaries turn them into print.”

That quickly changed, thank the business gods, but I feel like I’ve been thrust back to 1987 in many ways since my laptop crashed last week.

The good people at Fry’s noted the fan wasn’t working, but feared it might be damage beyond that.  I’m informed now that it’s been sent to its birthplace with HP/Compaq in California for a more serious assessment and, I hope, quick repair.  Alas, when we bought the extended warranty (the first time such a purchase seems to have not been a really stupid idea) we did not purchase the “automatic loaner” rider.

Oh, I’ve got the data backed up.  What I don’t have is an easy access to one computer I can use regularly  or transport with me to get that information into the formats I need.  Lesson plans, presentations, worksheets and tests are essentially on hold.

A somewhat better prepared group of juniors this year.  They have heard of Columbus.  They know basic map stuff, like in which direction we say the sun rises.  Prehistory remains mysterious to them, human migrations prior to 1750 are fuzzy to them, and the Age of Exploration seems to be complete news.  All that stuff I put together last year in case this happened?   It’s on the backup drive, the drive that I don’t have enough USB ports to tap into while doing much of anything else.

My classroom for a good book!  Of course, I’d have to reinvent the book check out process, and find some way to transport a half-ton of books from the book room to the classroom, and check them out.

We had a meeting Friday on what we’re doing to differentiate classroom lessons for differently-abled learners.  Unable to get lessons to any learners, I found it a waste of time at the moment.  How much other work teachers do is frustrated by the assumptions that all systems are go for teachers, when few systems are.

A reader, nyceducator,  noted he’s never had a working computer in his classroom in 25 years.  He’s better prepared than I am as a result, and I envy him at the moment.  Should I retrench and prepare for a paper future?

Teaching in America is, too often, a constant reinvention of the wheel.

The laptop I’m typing this on is 9 years old, old enough that it can connect to the home WiFi only with an expensive modem.  That takes up the one USB port.  I think I donated the last wired mouse I had, and the touchpad on the computer is failing (which is a big reason I bought the now-ailing computer back in 2009).  The battery has been failing for a long time, but that model is no longer manufactured.  Used batteries are tough to find on eBay, even.

I can write it out longhand, and fax it to a secretarial service who will convert it to electronic files for me.

How is your 1987 going?

OK Go – copyright, industry change, culture and technology, and great music

March 13, 2010

You’re internet and culture savvy — you probably already know all about this stuff.

OK Go’s music appeals to many.  The appeal convinced a major record label, Capitol/EMI, to sign the band to a deal.  OK Go worked hard to promote the music of the band, including videos.  Capitol looked at the videos, intensely creative works of art on their own, and pulled in the reins.  Okay to show the vids, the label said, but don’t allow downloads . . .

Minor twist on the old band meets label, band wins label story:  OK Go got out of the contract. They lost the label.

Now they’ve got an astounding new video to go viral, one that simply delights younger viewers and brings in older viewers with whispers of “shades of Rube Goldberg!”  (Who was Rube Goldberg?  Younger readers go here.)

NPR explains:

After the overwhelming success of the video for its 2006 song “Here It Goes Again,” in which its four band members execute a tightly choreographed dance routine built around a handful of treadmills, OK Go has lofty standards to live up to. With roughly 50 million views on YouTube, “Here It Goes Again” stands as one of the most popular music videos of the Internet era.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, the band set about constructing a painstakingly executed two-story Rube Goldberg machine, set to trigger in time to the music for its latest video, “This Too Shall Pass.” Although it starts out small, with a toy truck knocking over some dominoes, the contraptions that make up the machine rapidly get larger and much more complex — pianos are dropped, shopping carts come crashing down ramps, and one band member is launched headlong through a wall of boxes. After assembling a team of dozens of engineers to construct the set, more than 60 takes were needed to get everything working just right during filming.

Toughest part?  EMI, parent of Capitol, didn’t want to allow downloads of the music or video.

The band’s label, EMI, didn’t see things the same way. In an effort to maintain some control over the dissemination of the music video, EMI denied listeners the ability to embed it on their own Web sites and blogs. After receiving a deluge of complaints, the band eventually persuaded EMI to enable embedding. Soon afterward, however, OK Go parted ways with EMI to start its own record label, Paracadute.

NPR’s audio story is six minutes of fun, and learning.  Copyright, embedding and download issues — aren’t these the frontlines of new media legal discussion?

Personal quandary: I’m not sure that I don’t like this version of the song, with the Notre Dame marching band, better than the Rube Goldberg version.  What do you think?

Personal confession: Problems of mishearing lyrics abound.  I listened probably a dozen times thinking the refrain was “When the money comes.”  It makes more sense, and is much less cynical and wooish, with the real lyric, “When the morning comes.”


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Why bother to learn spelling in an age of computerized spell-checkers?

August 4, 2009

As often, slam-poetry veteran (and former teacher) Taylor Mali has important advice for people who trust computers too much:  “The Impotence of Proofreading.”

Um, this probably isn’t really safe for work, at least not in Texas or Alabama, and maybe not advisable for classroom use either.  But every English teacher in your school will have horror stories to add:

Am I the only one who thinks that reading a lot is a great way to overcome these problems?

Everything you wanted to know, but didn’t know to ask, about operating your computer

October 6, 2008

I just learned something you’d think a 25-year veteran of computers would know:  To highlight a word in text, double-click it.

Granted, I rarely cut or copy just one word, so the advice is of very little use to me.  Still, it saves fretting, and keystrokes.

I learned the trick reading “Pogue’s Posts” at the New York Times site — it’s a blog mainly about computers and technology.  A couple of days ago, David Pogue posted on computer tips for basic computer users.  That’s me, more and more.  Long ago I ceased being up on the technical stuff, as the machines took over more and more of what we used to do by command, and as GUI took over from DOS.

And I’ve learned a lot over the years.  It was useful when my wife was working at the Senate Computer Center and we could tap into the programmers’ minds with a beer after work — they told us about all sorts of commands for the line editor system that weren’t listed in the book, that I used to distinguish press releases and make speech texts easier for speakers to read — of course, no one knew we were using the system for press releases and speech texts, and for archiving information.  The system hadn’t been designed for those purposes.  We were early-day hackers of sorts.

But that was long ago, in a different state, and besides that computer is now on display in the Smithsonian.

I read Pogue’s piece with some interest.  What else don’t we know?  What else don’t I know?

* You can double-click a word to highlight it in any document, e-mail or Web page.

* When you get an e-mail message from eBay or your bank, claiming that you have an account problem or a question from a buyer, it’s probably a “phishing scam” intended to trick you into typing your password. Don’t click the link in the message. If in doubt, go into your browser and type “www.ebay.com” (or whatever) manually.

* Nobody, but nobody, is going to give you half of $80 million to help them liberate the funds of a deceased millionaire…from Nigeria or anywhere else.

* You can hide all windows, revealing only what’s on the computer desktop, with one keystroke: hit the Windows key and “D” simultaneously in Windows, or press F11 on Macs (on recent Mac laptops, Command+F3; Command is the key with the cloverleaf logo). That’s great when you want examine or delete something you’ve just downloaded to the desktop, for example. Press the keystroke again to return to what you were doing.

* You can enlarge the text on any Web page. In Windows, press Ctrl and the plus or minus keys (for bigger or smaller fonts); on the Mac, it’s the Command key and plus or minus.

* You can also enlarge the entire Web page or document by pressing the Control key as you turn the wheel on top of your mouse. On the Mac, this enlarges the entire screen image.

I knew some of that.

Pogue asked readers to send in their suggestions for tech tips. There’s gold in the comments.  There are 1,000 comments.

What are your favorite tech tricks?  Please post them here, as well as there, will you?  I’m still learning.

Does technology help education? Economist debate

October 19, 2007


The Economist’s on-line site launched a debate feature. First topic up in this Oxford-style debate: “Effectiveness of Technology – Does new technology add to the quality of education?”Discussions are open — you can play, too! — October 15th-23rd, 2007.In his opening statement defending the resolution, Sir John Daniel, president and CEO of The Commonwealth of Learning, provokes thought and discussion from the start:

Technology is replacing scarcity by abundance in other aspects of life: why not in education?It is not for lack of prophets. Ever since the invention of the blackboard each new communications medium has been hailed as an educational revolution. Rosy forecasts about the impact of radio, film, television, programmed learning, computers and the Internet succeeded each other through the 20th century although, revealingly, each prophet compared the revolutionary potential of the newest medium to the printing press, not to the previous technological white hope!Why hasn’t it worked? Why has the continuing introduction of new technologies and new media added little to the quality of most education? What can we learn from those few applications of communications media that are acknowledged successes?Technology is the application of scientific and other organized knowledge to practical tasks by organizations consisting of people and machines. In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith described how applying knowledge to the practical task of making pins led to a factory that produced them with consistent quality in higher volume and at lower cost than artisans making each pin by hand. The technological bases of Adam Smith’s pin factory were the principles of specialisation, division of labour and economies of scale.Most applications of technology in education disappoint because they ignore these principles and so fail to use technology’s intrinsic strengths to tackle real problems.

SRI International’s Robert Kozma bases his case to reject the resolution on research that shows the effectiveness of computers in learning, especially a study by James Kulik at the University of Michigan:

As a group, these studies looked at several types of educational technology applications (such as tutorials, simulations, and word processors), in a variety of subjects (such as mathematics, natural science, social science, reading and writing), and a range of grade levels (from vary young to high school). His findings across studies can be summarized as follows:

• Students who used computer tutorials in mathematics, natural science, or social science scored significantly higher in these subjects compared to traditional approaches, equivalent to an increase from 50th to 72nd percentile in test scores. Students who used simulation software in science also scored higher, equivalent to a jump from 50th to 66th percentile.

• Very young students who used computers to write their own stories scored significantly higher on measures of reading skill, equivalent to a boost from 50th to 80th percentile for kindergarteners and from 50th to 66th percentile for first graders. However, the use of tutorials in reading did not make a difference.

• Students who used word processors or otherwise used the computer for writing scored higher on measures of writing skill, equivalent to a rise from 50th to 62nd percentile.

What do you think, Dear Reader? Technology working or not? Meander over to the Economist site and weigh in with your opinions.

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