Jan 6, 2013

Apple (Computers) --- reblogged, consolidated

Here are our Apple posts concatenated into one story (finally) (this is modern writing, so we start asynchronously):

Act II. Somewhere in 1978 or 79, the Amsterdam department store De Bijenkorff opened a new sales corner on its 4th floor, mysteriously named "huiscomputers," which featured a new product, the Apple II home computer. At that time most people, including myself, would conceive of computers as "electronic brains" (Germans called them "Elektronengehirne" before they called them "computers" before they called them "Rechner"), all built by IBM, all infinitely expensive, large, and remote.

Standard IBM Hollerith punch card

Act I. My first contact with computers had been in 1972, when I took an algebra class at the Free University of Berlin and was tasked to program matrix inversions and some such in Algol68, the programming language du jour. This was done by (1) punching Hollerith cards in the right places, on special machines located in the university's computing center, then (2) placing the cards in the intray located in the hallway outside the main operating room where the computer was located (there was only one computer), (3) waiting for an operator to appear to empty the intray (he would open a wing door, and allow you a glimpse at the electronic brain, humming and chugging along in fluorescent light, tape decks clicking back and forth), (4) then waiting another hour or so for the operator to reappear with the "output," --- folded stacks of paper in a very large format, the name of the "job" (no pun intended) printed in very large letters on the first page. If your stack was very thin (as it usually was) this could mean only one thing: something had gone wrong. You would (5) try to find the error, or try to find some help to find the error, (6) correct it, (7) resubmit your job, and repeat the correction loop as appropriate. Usually, it would take only a few days  until a program of a few lines of code would finally run properly. 

IBM mainframe, system 360 (1964 - 78)

Act II, cont'd.  So far so good. Back to the department store. What could you do with a home computer, I asked the sales person. Well, he said, you could store cooking recipes and call them up when needed. I didn't buy the Apple II.

Act III. We're now at Dartmouth College, NH, and the day is Jan 16, 1984. I had become interested in computer simulations,  and was visiting Dartmouth's Research Policy Center, run by Dennis Meadows of The Limits to Growth fame, to learn more about his approach, called "System Dynamics." To repeat, the day is Jan 16, a Monday, and we all must go and have a look at the new Apple computer, the Macintosh. So we cross the icy, snowy campus, and arrive in a dedicated room of the computing center, where a passionate lady demonstrates to us what a rectangular box, white, with a small screen, and a funny little device on the desktop, called "mouse," could achieve together. There is also a small matrix printer with very ugly output. But, but, you could create sketches on the Macintosh screen by moving the mouse across the table, and then print them on the printer. Also, you could use different fonts for your text, and print them as they appeared on the screen (WYSIWYG). This led to typographic orgies of the worst kind for months on end, campuswide (don't ask), printed in very ugly ways by this matrix printer.

Apple Macintosh

Act IV A year and a half later. I'm returning to Dartmouth College on a regular basis for various projects, and spend a lot of time with Perry LaPotin, the polymath grad student, who has become an invaluable part of the Cold Regions Research Lab of the Corps of Engineers, conveniently located next to the college. Perry was already writing programs for the Macintosh. There was only one small problem. You could not write Macintosh programs on the Macintosh itself, since its memory was too small. Apple had built another machine, the Lisa, available only to professionals, whose memory was large enough for Macintosh programming, since it had a hard disk (HARD DISK) that could be made to work as virtual memory. The hard disk was really large, 10 megabytes, but there were glitches. Lisa didn't always know when the hard disk's capacity was exhausted, which led to hard disk malfunction, which then Perry had to repair using a mix of erratic reset activities (eg. the escape button), brawn, and black arts. He spent roughly half of his working day resetting the hard disk. I still see him sitting there, patiently kicking the Lisa back to work. When we would finally go home, belatedly, exhausted, we would turn our attention to the regrettable downward spiral that constituted the Apple Computer stock price. Apple was on its way out, since the Macintosh was fairly useless.

Perry LaPotin

InterludeSteve Job dies

Apple store in Palo Alto, CA
Apple Store, Palo Alto, CA.

(Another) Interlude. Perry sends this picture of the Lisa:

The Lisa (the only Apply computer on which to write software for the MacIntosh 1984-1987)

Act V. Now comes the part that is omitted in all the Steve Jobs obituaries. A few weeks later, still 1985. The Apple laser printer appears on the market. And it prints like a professional printer, plug and play, 50 different fonts, some very convincing ones. Your manuscript looks just great, your letters look just great, your writs, opinions, protestations, tables of content, graphics (Graphics), indexes, they all look great. You look great. A picture values a thousand words, a laser-printed graphic is invaluable; (in the PC-world of MS-DOS of 1985, you might, just might have been able to connect to some third party laser printer and print something in Courier font until the next software glitch put an end to your pretentiousness, but graphics where an entirely different animal and would have had to be printed separately anyhow).

My research grant applications are looking so much better than those of the competition, I'm collecting one grant after the other, until I get a Pioneer Grant from the Dutch government that allows me to start my own research institute, the Applied Logic Laboratory. I'm still convinced that my success in those years hinged on the flawless Macintosh laser print of my submissions, and in particular on the flawless laser-printed  tables of content. For example, the committee for the Pioneer grant met only once, with forty longish applications to evaluate, and only one grant to award. You can bet that the committee members, all busy, distinguished scholars, didn't start reading the stuff until they stepped on the train for their meeting in The Hague (much Dutch work gets done on trains, ask Paul Krugman), and they had barely time to read the tables of content during the journey. Mine was the best.

First Apple laser printer (plug & play)

Anyhow, the laser printer constituted a quantum leap, and many people understood, got their Macintosh laser act together, bought it together with the Macintosh, and saved the company.

Act VI It's three years later 1988, and I'm back in Amsterdam. The Macintosh II appears on the market, the first bona fide PC with a color screen.

Mac II

Somebody wrote a program that would generate Mandelbrot's fractals in real time on its screen, and the annual Dutch software exhibition features nothing but magic lanterns that breathe according to the incorruptible logic of Mandelbrot's algorithm in infinite loops.

A typical Mandelbrot image (Helix 2)

Interlude. We're also getting a research contract with IBM, since IBM has now a Unix mini computer, half way between a PC and a small mainframe (for insiders: think VAX). We would get the computer for free (listprice perhaps 100 kay, regardless of the currency), work with it, and produce a report. Nerd alert: IBM has a Unix machine --- a large step for mankind, a small step for IBM.

Now, in order to use the machine, we had to connect it to our network. And it's an ethernet-(work). "Is your new machine ethernet-compatible," we ask IBM. "Of course," the men in the blue suits sing in reply while pummeling their breasts (there was a dress code at IBM in those days, blue suits, white shirt, tie), "we are the best."

So we connect the IBM machine (something with lot's of "8" in the name) to our ethernet. Nothing happens. We call IBM. "It's your fault," the men in the blue suits sing over the telephone while pummeling their breasts, "we are the best. Have you though of switching your network on?" Yes, we have.  "Have you thought of this, have you thought of that?" Yes, we have. This goes back and forth for a few months. One fine day, a delegation from IBM descends from heaven in the spaceship from Independence Day. Several people at once. They switch on the machine, they think of this and of that. They think the whole day. Finally they have the answer. "It's your fault," they say, "you are using the latest ethernet version, and  your version is not compatible with our machine."


Stay tuned.

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