January 2010

Multitasking in the “Mad Men” Era

by Joey deVilla on January 15, 2010

square root

Here’s a great video from 1963 featuring the great-granddad of today’s web servers and cloud computing systems. It was just posted by Boston’s Computer History Museum titled Solution to Computer Bottlenecks. Filmed in May of that year, it features MIT Science Reporter John Fitch – who has a classic 1960’s announcer’s voice – interviewing MIT computer scientist Fernando J. Corbato, the guy behind Corbato’s Law (“The number of lines of code a programmer can write in a fixed period of time is the same independent of the language used”).

The subject of the film is the then-new approach of timesharing, which Corbato describes as “connecting a large number of consoles to a central computer”, which made the great (and very necessary – it even gets mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers) leap from batch to interactive processing possible. Here’s the video; enjoy all the retro-tech goodness:

This may have been really deep nerd stuff back in 1963, but today, it the sort of thing that you might see covered in a grade school class. Even if you’re not a programmer or IT pro, I think you’ll find it entertaining.

Some Gems from the Video

A computer terminal in one’s office isn’t unusual in this day and age, but back in 1963, such a thing must’ve been incredibly super-1337. Here’s the console in Corbato’s office, which he introduces by saying “Here’s one of the consoles we might be using in the future.” Even to the reporter of that era, it looked like an ordinary IBM Selectric typewriter:

1963 future console

The general principles of digital computers haven’t changed much since those days. Corbato describes memory as “a bunch of pigeonholes” that store numbers, some of which function as data, some of which function as instructions.

memory pigeonholes

The concept of a CPU, the program counter stepping through memory and looping already existed in 1963:

cpu program counter

He describes the new setup “a set parallel consoles which are not all near the computer in fact, most of them are remote…and let the users use these with a reaction time of a few seconds instead of a few hours.”


He says that eventually they’d like to switch from “typewriter” consoles to "graphic displays”, but at the time there were still some kinks to be worked out.

One of the “elaborate advanced ideas” that he hints at but says is beyond the topic of the film is going beyond hooking up dumb terminals to the mainframe and attaching smaller computers to it as well, such as the DEC PDP-1 and 1620:

advanced elaborate ideas

When discussing the hard disk and its capacity (9 million words), Corbato has to explain to Fitch that it isn’t a big whirling disk on which you store tape, but a platter coated with a magnetic material like tape. This is old hat to us in the 21st century, but at the time, disks weren’t household items:

hard disk

At the time, disks had been around for about a year. Corbato confesses that there are still some problems with them: they “haven’t figured out how to keep things from getting mixed up”.

And on it goes with ideas that are still in use today: programming languages (“a particular synthetic language which is largely technical, and which is to some extent algebra too”), the organization of different programs in memory at the same time, multitasking with a scheduler that determines which program gets the processor’s attention at the moment, file loading and management by the operating system, the concepts of “brute-force solutions”, context switching (which they can “keep down to 10%”), input validation and even the phrase “it’s a feature”.

The line of Corbato’s that I love most is his prescient statement about usability and demand: “We’ve really made the computer extremely easy to use here. And so it’s very clear that in the long run, we’re going to increase in the need for computer time by a large amount.”

This video is all sorts of old-school awesome. If you’ve got nothing to do on your lunch break, check it out!

This article also appears in Global Nerdy.

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The Eight Irresistible Principles of Fun

by Joey deVilla on January 14, 2010

The Eight Irresistible Principles of Fun is a cute little video created by Michael Bungay Stanier’s Accordion City-based work-coaching company, Box of Crayons. Those of you who know me personally might find these principles strangely familiar…


Popular Wiping Methods

by Joey deVilla on January 11, 2010

It’s about time someone – in this case, the fine folks at Blogadilla – put together a chart of toilet paper wiping styles:

Chart showing a number of ways people use a "wad" of toilet paper

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Mathew Ingram Joins GigaOM

by Joey deVilla on January 11, 2010

mathew ingramIt’s another “local guy makes good” story: Mesh Conference co-founder, Globe and Mail writer and editor for the better part of two decades, all-round respected Canadian voice in tech journalism and fixture of the Toronto tech scene, Mathew Ingram is leaving the Globe to join GigaOM as one of its full-time reporters.

This is great news all ‘round: for GigaOM, who are getting a great writer to join their ranks, for Mathew, because this is a great opportunity, and for Canada – whose techies since Alexander Graham Bell have been punching above their weight class – who now has a voice in one of technology’s most important and influential blogs.

Congratulations, Mathew, and see you online!

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.


“I’m With @Stupid” T-Shirt

by Joey deVilla on January 9, 2010

Here’s what happens when the 1970’s “I’m with Stupid” t-shirt gets a 21st century Twitter upgrade:

Grey t-shirt featuring a pointing finger with a Twitter bird on it: "I'm with @Stupid"

This article also appears in Global Nerdy.


Folda Lisa

by Joey deVilla on January 6, 2010

http://www.joeydThe Mona Lisa, made up of folders in different shades of yellow and brown
Found via Certified Bullshit Technician.

This article also appears in Global Nerdy.


Sugar: The Bitter Truth

by Joey deVilla on January 5, 2010

You might not think that a physician-delivered lecture would be interesting viewing, but I’m having trouble pulling myself away from this presentation from University of California, San Francisco’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, Sugar: The Bitter Truth. In the presentation, Dr. Robert H. Lustig argues that fructose – especially in the form of high-fructose corn syrup – is so bad for you that it should be classified as a poison; he also likens the way your body reacts to it as alcohol without the buzz.

According to Dr. Lustig, it’s not merely an issue of biochemistry but also industry – he points to the corn industry-sponsored Sweet Surprise site – and even politics. He puts some of the blame on this guy, whom he alleges wanted to make food a non-issue in presidential elections:

Richard M. Nixon

(“Everything bad that ever happened in this country started with this man,” he quips when he shows the slide.)

The presentation is just under an hour and a half, but the presenter and topic are so interesting that you won’t notice the time pass. It gets a little science-y in places, but no more so than a Discovery Channel science program. It’s been broken into 9 ten-minute segments, which means you can spread out your viewing over a week’s worth of breaks.