Quote of the Day: Computers

 

“On two occasions, I have been asked [by members of Parliament], ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’…I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”
Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864), p. 67

Computers. When designed properly, they do precisely what they are told. They do not interpret, they need to be explicitly instructed on what exactly to do. However, when you get them going, they give you incredible capabilities. During WW2, people would have sacrificed armies to obtain the computing power in your cell phone. Even a simple flip phone has more power than all the computers in existence at the time. Charles Babbage could have revolutionized history, had manufacturing been up to the task — William Gibson’s novel The Difference Engine posits just such a future. (It was the beginning of the Steampunk genre)

There is a corollary to that power and control. If a computer you set up screws up, there is no one to blame but yourself.

For a fair number of geeks like myself, building your computer represents almost a rite of passage. People trade tips on building the fastest, most reliable machine — install your operating system on a solid state drive, use only a trace of thermal paste on the CPU, check the benchmark reviews on graphics cards before you buy it, make sure to push hard when installing modules on your motherboard. For a lot of us, this is similar to the old days of refurbishing cars and spending your weekends under the hood. Each new build has stories and lessons to pass on.

On my first build, I ran into an odd failure to boot. After troubleshooting it with a friend, we found that I had used too many screws to secure the motherboard to the case, grounding the circuits. I had literally screwed over my computer. A little work with a screwdriver and I was in business.

Another time, I rescued a couple of computers from being trashed at work, wiped the hard drive, and installed Linux on them. Linux is popular among geeks because it is free (both as in speech and as in beer), it tends to use less resources (like a lightweight, efficient engine), and it also tends to give you much more control over your computer. The first, which I installed Xubuntu on, became an excellent work/email/web browsing computer for my best friend’s mom. The other, on which I installed Linux Mint, currently serves as a Netflix and DVD player, hooked up to my TV.

My most recent computer rebuild was another rescue — a rare high-end computer that was about to be thrown out. After getting clearance to take the machine, I faced a fair number of challenges. For one, some of the RAM had gone bad and needed to be replaced. That actually resulted in the computer turning off and on again like it was possessed. A quick order of two 8GB DDR3 sticks fixed that problem nicely. I ran into a bizarre difficulty as the DVD/CD combo drive would not read the disks I had — except for one. Turned out, the DVD reading laser was shot, but not the CD reading laser. A quick order of a new DVD drive fixed that problem nicely.

Last but not least, Windows 10 would not install, citing a bizarre error which normally occurs to people installing a different way than I was. A new install DVD and unplugging every other drive turned out to be the trick. Thus, I created a $1,500 machine for around $150, plus spare parts I had lying around. I’m writing this post on that machine right now.

As for what I will be doing with the vast computing power at my disposal, well:

“The only legitimate use of a computer is to play games.”
— Eugene Jarvis, Supercade, MIT Press, p.14 ISBN: 0-262-02492-6

Published in Technology
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  1. Hank Rhody, Meddling Cowpoke Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Meddling Cowpoke
    @HankRhody

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Hank Rhody, Meddling Cowpoke (View Comment):

    While I’m at it, I was idly considering last night as I drifted off to sleep, how I’d go about implementing Tetris on an Excel sheet. It could be done, but definitely falls under things best left undone.

     

    Also falls under “things you’ll still probably try to do”.

    No need. YouTube already has it.

    • #31
  2. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):
    She got her start at the company identifying and fixing errors input by customers who were not following instructions.

    Error-trapping is pretty important.

    • #32
  3. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):
    She is the Excel Queen for several departments in her company (a benefits and retirement management company), including a couple that have people out in the field who run financial simulations for customers.

    Sorta what I do on a very small scale.

    Excel isn’t very kind to idiot-proofing compared to other user interfaces I have worked with. Luckily, I know well the idiots who intend to use my program (me and my dad).

    • #33
  4. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    I have gotten good at Excel sheet programming thanks to various nation-based role-playing / strategy games.  I use it at work for tracking training and manual data reporting.

    Stina, your kids are lucky to have a geek mom.  My father is an avid gamer, and I remember playing intellivion with him when I was a wee lad.

     

    • #34
  5. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):
    She got her start at the company identifying and fixing errors input by customers who were not following instructions.

    Error-trapping is pretty important.

    Yeah, it’s how she got a regular job at the company. She was initially hired as a temporary worker to review enrollment date input by new customers. She took the initiative to note that the customer errors fell into a few broad categories, and devised processes to deal with them as categories, rather than one-offs. That got her noticed as a kid with initiative, which caused the company to create a job so they could keep her on. 

    • #35
  6. She Member
    She
    @She

    OmegaPaladin: “On two occasions, I have been asked [by members of Parliament], ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’…I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”
    Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864), p. 67

    I have committed the emphasized portion of Babbage’s quote to memory, and cannot wait for the opportunity to use it, which I’m pretty sure will come soon.  Not as soon as it once might have, but soon, nonetheless.

    When I was in PC sales, and IBM came out with the 6mHz 80286 AT, 20MB disk drive, 256K RAM ($5295 for the base model I’ve just described).   You could ramp up the RAM to (I think) 16MB, and that was several hundred dollars.  The color/graphics adapter for the monitor (320×244 resolution graphics, 4 colors), was $244. And the color monitor itself was another $680.  Those who wanted to do scientific work added yet another card, the “80X87 math co-processor board,” which could increase the speed of calculation five-fold.  I forget what it cost.  Several hundred dollars more, though.

    Fortunately for my customers, they all had corporate contracts, and they price was heavily discounted.  But still . . .

    Shortly thereafter, Compaq came out with their Deskpro 286.  It was similar in spec to the AT, except with an 8mHz 80286 and higher resolution graphics.  It could be maxed out pretty much as above, but the list price was less and the discounts were steeper, so only committed “Big Blue” shops insisted on the IBM, once they saw the Compaq.

    This was in 1985 sometime.  Our dealership used to run customer open houses, in which we would invite scientific/engineering customers (of which Pittsburgh had a plethora at the time), and we would have “races” between the IBM and the Compaq, running one of the most memory and calculation-intensive programs at the time: AutoCAD, developed by anonymous (of course, I didn’t know that at the time).

    Over the next few years, Compaq and IBM continued their rivalry, with faster chips, more memory and disk space and better graphics.  And we continued with the “races.”  Compaq was always a step ahead, and for the first time ever, IBM found itself losing market share.  It never really recovered from the competition.

    • #36
  7. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    She (View Comment):
    I have committed the emphasized portion of Babbage’s quote to memory, and cannot wait for the opportunity to use it, which I’m pretty sure will come soon. Not as soon as it once might have, but soon, nonetheless.

    I saved one up for years, too, and finally got a chance to use “Pardon me for neglecting the full rigor of your informality.”  I really like Jack Vance.

    • #37
  8. dnewlander Coolidge
    dnewlander
    @dnewlander

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    OmegaPaladin:

    “On two occasions, I have been asked [by members of Parliament], “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?”…I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”

    Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864), p. 67

    Our daughter can apprehend that kind of confusion. She deals with it frequently. She is the Excel Queen for several departments in her company (a benefits and retirement management company), including a couple that have people out in the field who run financial simulations for customers. Her biggest challenge is not the Excel programming itself, it’s trying to make the input and output screens sufficiently idiot-proof that there is minimal chance of the field salespeople screwing up the simulations.

    She got her start at the company identifying and fixing errors input by customers who were not following instructions.

    So she has had lots of experience with people who expect her programming to fix their input errors.

    Those Excel champs are the main reason companies like mine exist. They create numeric monstrosities that we obviate via the data warehouse.

    • #38
  9. Locke On Member
    Locke On
    @LockeOn

    I date back to the mainframe and mini-computer days.  The first time I got my hands on the guts of a machine, rather than admiring it through windows in its temple, was a TI960A minicomputer.  It was in a university department and we were doing very early automation and control work on lab equipment.   Which necessitated swapping edge connectors onto and off a rack of A/D and D/A circuit boards rather frequently.  The chassis above the one we always swapped had a ‘bed of nails’ wire-wrapped board as its base. (Shows you how old and slow this was, that it didn’t leak RF all over the place).  If you slipped while trying to pull one of those sometimes stubborn edge connectors off, and got into the bed of nails, it was called ‘making a blood sacrifice to the DMA’ (the chassis name) and that was not a metaphor.

    The closest I ever came to actually building machines was when I worked at Apple about 30 years ago.  I was not in production, or even in hardware development, but software.  There it was a known practice to create ‘franken-machines’ cobbled together from prototype motherboards with upgraded ROMs, ‘slick’ chassis boxes (texturing the injection molding tool was pretty much the last step in a launch), and hard drives and other peripherals borrowed from here and there.  These off-budget/off-inventory boxes often hung around for quite a while as spare print or file servers or just an extra testing machine.  They weren’t supposed to ever get out the door, since they had no proper serial number and the sometimes odd-ball parts collection would make support a problem, but I’m sure there were a few that went home anyway.  (I never took a franken-machine, but I did pick up a half dozen HDs that were headed for the dumpster, popped them into an old AT chassis, and had my first hard drive array.)

    • #39
  10. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring
    @WillowSpring

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned BYTE magazine (slogan “running lite without Overbyte”)  It published from 1975 through 1998 and was the small computer builder’s bible.  I had all the issues back to when it was several sheets stapled together and continuing through the slick magazine era.  You could always tell the health of the personal computer industry by how thick it was with ads.  If I remember, one of the early issues had a rant by Bill Gates about people ripping off his basic.

    My first “personal” computer was an ASR-33 terminal next to my desk at my first job.  It was next to my desk, since I was the new guy and was put in the room with it since it was so noisy.  It was hooked to our main-frame computer and I got permission to ‘play’ with it when I wasn’t busy.  I wound up writing a simulation in Basic of the hardware we were building.  That impressed management and my career started picking up speed.

    I guess my first small computer was a KIM-1 which was introduced in 1976.  It was a single board computer about the size of a sheet of paper.  Eventually, I had it hooked to a tape recorder (for storage) and an added 4K ram – also about the same size.  I mounted them in an old briefcase for portability.  I used that to get my second job at an industrial control system when I mocked up a proposed control panel for a temperature controller using the KIM-1 as the base.

    Those were good times when one person could get an amazing amount (for the time) done just by himself.  These days, you can still get an amazing amount done, but if it breaks, it is usually out of your control where the problem lies.

    • #40
  11. She Member
    She
    @She

    WillowSpring (View Comment):

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned BYTE magazine (slogan “running lite without Overbyte”) It published from 1975 through 1998 and was the small computer builder’s bible. I had all the issues back to when it was several sheets stapled together and continuing through the slick magazine era. You could always tell the health of the personal computer industry by how thick it was with ads. If I remember, one of the early issues had a rant by Bill Gates about people ripping off his basic.

    My first “personal” computer was an ASR-33 terminal next to my desk at my first job. It was next to my desk, since I was the new guy and was put in the room with it since it was so noisy. It was hooked to our main-frame computer and I got permission to ‘play’ with it when I wasn’t busy. I wound up writing a simulation in Basic of the hardware we were building. That impressed management and my career started picking up speed.

    I guess my first small computer was a KIM-1 which was introduced in 1976. It was a single board computer about the size of a sheet of paper. Eventually, I had it hooked to a tape recorder (for storage) and an added 4K ram – also about the same size. I mounted them in an old briefcase for portability. I used that to get my second job at an industrial control system when I mocked up a proposed control panel for a temperature controller using the KIM-1 as the base.

    Those were good times when one person could get an amazing amount (for the time) done just by himself. These days, you can still get an amazing amount done, but if it breaks, it is usually out of your control where the problem lies.

    We still have several boxes of BYTE left over from the old days.  Loved Jerry Pournelle, who died not too long ago.

    • #41
  12. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    I have lots of admiration for the veterans of the older days of computing.  The first computer I remember using was a 286 with a Hercules monochrome monitor.  I wrote a grade school report on Australia in WordStar, and printed it out on an old dot-matrix printer.  Holy cow, that was loud! 

    I remember the excitement when we got a 386 with an EGA monitor (16 whole colors!).  80MB of hard drive space!  This weird thing called a mouse you could use to paint with.  A SoundBlaster sound card that actually was worth something.

    • #42
  13. Dave of Barsham Member
    Dave of Barsham
    @LesserSonofBarsham

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    I have lots of admiration for the veterans of the older days of computing. The first computer I remember using was a 286 with a Hercules monochrome monitor. I wrote a grade school report on Australia in WordStar, and printed it out on an old dot-matrix printer. Holy cow, that was loud!

    I remember the excitement when we got a 386 with an EGA monitor (16 whole colors!). 80MB of hard drive space! This weird thing called a mouse you could use to paint with. A SoundBlaster sound card that actually was worth something.

    Especially if you had Wolfenstein… 

    • #43
  14. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Dave of Barsham (View Comment):
    Especially if you had Wolfenstein… 

    Which I did.

    • #44
  15. She Member
    She
    @She

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    I remember the excitement when we got a 386 with an EGA monitor (16 whole colors!). 80MB of hard drive space! This weird thing called a mouse you could use to paint with. A SoundBlaster sound card that actually was worth something.

    Gosh, I remember those too.  We were indeed, delirious with joy when the Enhanced Graphics Adapters came out.  Followed a few years later by the PS/2 and VGA (that was when we finally got to a resolution of 640×480 on a 12″ computer screen).  By that time, I wasn’t selling PCs any more, and was working in IT support for a Pittsburgh hospital

    It’s funny how we were just gobsmacked at the mad advances in technology of the time, when I look back on it now.  If you wanted to OCR any text, you had to have it retyped on a typewriter (usually an IBM Selectric, with the interchangable typestyle “ball” using a special font (OCR-A, or OCR-B) and then run it through the scanning machine, which was about as big as a small refrigerator.  The idea that you could download a free app for your phone, or use a $79 combination printer/fax/scanner and pick up most of just about anything would have been seen as make-believe, and certainly not possible in my lifetime, if we’d even contemplated it.

    Here’s the first “computer” I ever tangled with as an IT professional.  The NBI System 3000 Word Processor.  It was about $16K, without the printer.  Motorola chip.  Proprietary version of some flavor of Unix.  2-360K floppy disk drives, 48K of memory, tiny black and white screen.  Its software, though, was amazing.  It was the best, no doubt in my mind.

    Here’s a link to the brochure of the time (About 1979).  We did it all.  Records processing, math, scientific equations, connected to mainframes, synchronous comm, asynchronous comm.  You know, bleeding edge stuff.  And it was.

    Thanks for the shout out to us geezers, @omegapaladin :)

    • #45
  16. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    I was lucky to grow up in a household where my father was always getting the latest and greatest computers for himself, and then handing off the older ones to us to use.  Except when that didn’t work so well and he’d cannibalize them for parts (we lost one of our two Commodore 64s that way).  We had an assortment of different machines at different times, but the real workhorse arrived with the Northgate 386 tower.  But he was always fiddling with it, so it sat on the floor next to his desk (we’re talking full-tower) with the cover off.  He never saw the point in sound cards at the time, but as he did so much in AutoCAD he sprang for the best VGA card he could find, and an NEC monitor to go with it.  He also added a SCSI card for running an early Sony external CDROM drive and a Gen1 HP Scanjet that only did black and white, but did it really well.  As we also had by this time an HP Laserjet II, I scuttled a toner cartridge running off mech sheets for BattleTech (he was not pleased).  It was great being able to learn on all of that hardware.

    • #46
  17. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    but as he did so much in AutoCAD he sprang for the best VGA card he could find, and an NEC monitor to go with it.

    If he did so much in AutoCAD (thanks anonymous) he probably sprang for a numeric coprocessor, too.

    • #47
  18. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    but as he did so much in AutoCAD he sprang for the best VGA card he could find, and an NEC monitor to go with it.

    If he did so much in AutoCAD (thanks anonymous) he probably sprang for a numeric coprocessor, too.

    He did, then cracked the code and added some capabilities that AutoCAD was lacking at the time.

    • #48
  19. ddavewes Member
    ddavewes
    @ddavewes

    I bought my first computer in 1979. It was a TRS-80 which came with 16k (not gig, not meg) of memory. The storage device was a modified Radio Shack cassette tape player. You could add another 48k of memory to max it out to 64k.

    The less-than-reliable tape cassette storage device would take about 20 minutes to load or save a 50k program. The display was monochrome and text was displayed in all CAPS. I later read a TRS computer magazine that said there was a way to display lower case as well. You had to had to open the keyboard, which contained the motherboard, find a certain IC, solder a resistor from that IC’s pin 7 to pin 5 of an adjacent IC. Hey, it worked! I wondered why Radio Shack didn’t enable upper/lower case since it was already available on the chips?

    Any software you wrote or software you purchased was saved and distributed as BASIC source code. A few software stored popped up in Chicago and the surrounds. Software was displayed in plastic bags, each of which contained a small printed description and user manual along with a cassette tape, containing the source code.  To run the program, you loaded the cassette tape and had the code read in to the TRS-80 computer. You could read the source code once it was loaded. You then typed RUN to execute the program.

    A year or so later, stand-alone 5 ¼” floppy drives became available. They were each about the size of a half-height shoebox and contained their own power supply. They started and stopped with a loud “clack”.

    The floppy disks of course required a disk operating system. Radio Shack had its own DOS, but that wasn’t the one you wanted. The good one was a DOS written by a Colorado company named “Apparat”. They would furnish updates and bug fixes about once a month. The upgrade came in a printed letter delivered by the Post Office. The letter contained the directions to implement a series of patches. They instructed you how to get into the DOS hex code editor. For each bug fix, you then went to the specified hex address and replaced a series of 2 character hex codes with the supplied corrected code.

    After floppy drives were plentiful, a company developed a BASIC compiler, which would, after hours of listening to clacking floppy drives, produce a compiled EXE file. No more need to expose your source code. The compiler was produced by a company named Microsoft. I wonder what ever happened to them?

    • #49
  20. Hank Rhody, Meddling Cowpoke Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Meddling Cowpoke
    @HankRhody

    ddavewes (View Comment):
    I bought my first computer in 1979. It was a TRS-80 which came with 16k (not gig, not meg) of memory. The storage device was a modified Radio Shack cassette tape player. You could add another 48k of memory to max it out to 64k.

    I got my first Trash-80
    Bought it at the five-and-dime
    Came with 16 k memory
    It was the summer of ’79

    • #50
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