Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Technology Squared

Welcome to the '80s! It is a time before BlackBerries, Kindles and Facebook. Bill Gates and Paul Allen have yet to create Windows, but DOS exists and Steve Jobs has already been hard at work in his Cupertino garage with another fellow named Steve Wozniak, and together they have created the first portable computer, the Apple (actually, they're already up to the Apple IIe, a nifty little box with a typewriter and a whole 8 kilobytes of memory!). The rest of us are still used to doing things like tapping out punch cards in a language called FORTRAN to use on one of those big, massive IBM mainframes. There is no Excel, but there's Lotus 1-2-3. There is no PowerPoint, but we have Harvard Graphics. And while there is no Word, or even WordPerfect, there is a nice little gadget known as a Selectric typewriter, and it can type in different fonts! (All you need to do is pop in a different ball). And we can all network socially, thanks to a wonderful thing called Prodigy!

But all is not rosy with this wonderful new high technology. First of all, your KayPro is a heavy sucker. You might have one of those newfangled Compaq boxes, but when Texas Instruments perfects the TI-99/4A, it's going to blow away that Compaq (why did I ever buy 100 shares at $10 a share? I must've been crazy!). The second problem is that those IBM PC's that Charlie Chaplin sells, which are the gold standard, don't have accuracy beyond 8 significant digits (you can get a co-processor that boosts that accuracy to 16 significant digits, but that's money, and who's doing higher-order regressions, anyway?)

Moore's Law has yet to really kick in. We had random access memories, but they had yet to develop amazing superpowers. Bubble memories are only a couple of years old.
Within ten years, computers will have 128k of memory on the hard drive and 16k of RAM, and won't we be flying then? As it is, we've still got the 8086 chips, but pretty soon we'll be moving up to the 80286 (and with an 80287 math co-processor, you'll be able to run those 1-2-3 spreadsheets without having to turn off the automatic recalculation). Those guys at Lotus are geniuses. I don't know what you can do with Symphony, but I hear that Jazz is even better than Symphony.

Actually, that's not what was so amazing about the '80s. Steve Wozniak was one cool guy; he got a whole bunch of bands together and created the US! Festival - three days of fun in the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles and west of the Joshua Trees. The Clash were there, and so was Van Halen, and I hear that U2 played an amazing set. On the other end of the country, this guy named Grandmaster Flash was doing absolutely weird things with a couple of turntables, and kids were break-dancing in the streets (did you ever think you'd see someone spin around on their heads?). Cum on, feel the noize!
The '80s also made a bona fide celebrity out of Erland van Lidth de Jeude. If you did not go to MIT, you remember him as the big, mean, bald-headed dude who sang "Down in the Valley" in Stir Crazy. Those of us who took Computer Lab remember him as one of the TA's, a resident of East Campus, an imposing Greco-Roman wrestler (he weighed in excess of 300 pounds, had Size 18 dress shoes and was once measured to have more explosive power than a horse). He was also The Voice, whose larger-than-life presence filled many a Musical Theatre Guild production. When he sang a tune from "1776" in Building 10, they could hear him in Lobby 7. When he wasn't in films, he was a highly paid computer consultant (although he could have made a mint on the WWF circuit). This was probably the only Stickles cartoon that pictured him.
These days, we use Control-Alt-Delete instead of Control-C to unstick a frozen computer.

One of the great MIT hacks dates back about ten years, when the first voice recognition software was introduced. Supposedly (and I was not there to witness it, so I am going strictly on news reports), the software was being demonstrated before a rapt audience, when a lone voice in the audience barked out, "Format C, Enter!" It was followed almost immediately by a second voice in the audience, "Yes, Enter!" The software worked perfectly.

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