April 8, 2013


Volume 7, Issue 27 – April 8, 2013

I Coulda Been Bill Gates!

On Thursday evening, I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural installation of members of SPSU’s chapter of Upsilon Pi Epsilon (UPE), the International Honor Society for the Computing and Information Disciplines.  Jonathan Lartigue (CS) had led the effort to organize a chapter at SPSU and it all came to fruition on Thursday, with some 40 students being inducted into UPE.  Jonathan made the mistake of asking me to say a few words, so I joined President Lisa Rossbacher and Dean Han Reichgelt on the dais.

Lisa congratulated the students, and then spoke about Grace Hopper (nickname: Amazing Grace), who was a pioneer in the field of Computer Science.  Hopper received her Masters Degree from Yale University in 1928, and a Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1934.  She taught math at Vassar beginning in 1931, and got a leave of absence from Vassar in 1943 to join the Naval Reserve.  She graduated 1st in her class at Naval Reserve Midshipman’s School at Smith College, and was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard, where she was one of the first programmers on the Mark I computer, and developed the first compiler for a computer language.  Among her many major accomplishments in the field of computing, she is responsible for the term “debugging” relative to a computer program.  One day in 1947 while working on the Mark II computer, her associates found a moth had gotten into one of the relays and was responsible for the computer not working.  When they removed the moth, she told them they had debugged the system, and taped the moth into the logbook (which is now in the Smithsonian Institution).


Hopper retired several times, but was always called back to duty.  Her final retirement came in 1986, as a rear admiral and the oldest commissioned officer in the Navy.  The destroyer USS Hopper (DDG-70) is named for her, as is the Cray XE6 “Hopper” supercomputer, at the Naval Energy Research Scientific Computing Center.

My remarks weren’t quite so erudite.  I had learned that the UPE Honor Society is now 46 years old, which meant it was founded at Texas A&M in 1967, so I decided to talk about what computing was like back then.

In 1967, I was the ripe old age of 12, and the only computer I was aware of was in the Bat Cave on the TV show Batman.  I went to grad school in South Carolina in 1976, and a few years later, my research professor thought I needed to take a break from the lab and gave me a computer project to work on.  I’d never taken any computer courses, but decided I’d give it a shot.  I found that I liked programming and picked it up pretty quickly, becoming the lab group’s go-to computer guy, and doing about half my thesis on a project involving computer simulation of NMR spectra (don’t ask!).

Computing was very different in those days.  Programs were punched onto computer cards, and when you wanted to run the program, the stack of cards had to be fed through an air-blown card reader.  The air would ruffle the cards up, and they’d go fut-fut-fut-fut through the reader in a process that would screw up about ¼ of the time.  In that case, you’d have to feed them over again.

The University of South Carolina used the state government’s mainframe computer, which was the most powerful computer in the state.  If your computer program required lots of memory, it was automatically queued with a low priority and had to run overnight.  Lots of memory in this case meant anything more than 8K!

The research I was doing required me to use a computer program that could do a Fourier Transform.  While there was a commercial program that claimed it could do a Fourier Transform, I found that it didn’t work—it produced garbage as the result.   In checking what was going wrong, I found that the eigenvectors it calculated weren’t orthonormal (again, don’t ask).  I called the company, who connected me to their programmer.  When I told him that when I multiplied one eigenvector by another I didn’t get “0” as the result (or if I multiplied it by itself, I didn’t get “1”), he told me “that’s not what we mean by orthonormal”.  When I asked what they meant by orthonormal, he said he’d call me back.  As of today, I’m still waiting for that call.

Ultimately, I had to write my own program to do the Fourier Transform, and more importantly, an inverse Fourier Transform, to simulate the spectra.  I first tried to use a programming language called PL-1 that looked promising, but had to abandon it because we could never get numbers to converge in its logic statements.  I’m still waiting for that phone call from the programmers too.  I settled on Fortran IV and even using the fast-Fourier Transform algorithm that had recently been published, it was a big program—about 16K.  So, I was doing a lot of this work overnight.

It was a big day in my life when I met the guy who was in charge of the state mainframe at a local bar.  I bought him a beer and he told me the password for the computer’s initiators.  That was great, because if your program had the password on it, it would jump the queue and run immediately, even in the daytime.  As the time I wanted to finish my research drew nearer, I’d put through several versions of the program at once.  On one ambitious day, I put through ten at one time, and got a call from state mainframe telling me to stop—I’d just blocked the state from running its payroll by tying up all available initiators.

When it was time to write up my thesis, the first commercial plotter had just come on the market and I still remember working for several hours with the computer guys to hook it up, since I wanted to use it.  No plug and play in those days.  There were no printers capable of doing superscripts and subscripts either—you had to add them yourself by feeding the pages into an IBM typewriter.

As it turns out, I was the first graduate student to write his thesis using a word processing language—an ancient language called “Script”.  When I took the thesis to the Thesis Lady who had to approve that it was on the right kind of paper (at least 40% rag content, ruled with a red square) and had the right signatures on it, she noticed that it was both left- and right-justified.  She looked me in the eye, raised an eyebrow, and asked me how I had managed to do that.  I knew then and there with perfect certainty that if I told her that it had been printed on a computer, she would have rejected it.  So instead, I looked her right back in the eye and said, “I had to pay the typist extra for that.”


Sports Roundup

As most readers of the BLAB are aware, I have little interest in football or basketball.  Still, it’s hard not to get caught up in the March Madness fever, especially with hometown team Syracuse in the final four.  My father was telling me that he thought Louisville was going to win the other semifinal, and that Syracuse had beaten Louisville earlier in the season, thereby giving Syracuse every chance to take it all.  Naturally, that put the curse on Syracuse, and down they went.  So who will take it all—Michigan or Louisville?  I’m sure someone cares…

Meanwhile in the beautiful game, while Chelsea has been pretty sucky in the Premier League this year, currently bouncing between third and fourth in the league, they’ve been doing pretty well in the other competitions.  They beat Manchester United to get to the quarterfinals of the F.A. Cup championship, and are closing in on the Europa League semifinals by beating Rubin Kazan (a Russian team) 3-1.  Fernando Torres, who Chelsea paid more than $50M for, has done pretty much nothing in the Premier League, but weirdly enough, scores consistently when playing in the European championships.  This game was no exception—he scored twice.  Chelsea did win this weekend, beating bottom-of-the-table Sutherland 2-1 in a game marked by own goals from both sides, before Ivanovic put it in the win column.

Meanwhile, ex-Chelsea player and my personal favorite, Didier Drogba (originally from Ivory Coast) is now playing for Galatasaray, a Turkish team in Istanbul, after playing for some time in China.  He’s only been there a few weeks, but he’s tearing up the league and has scored some spectacular goals.  This week’s score was a wild one that came in a 3-1 victory at the expense of Mersin Idman Yurdu—it was a sky-high shot that somehow went in, and can be seen by clicking here.  Best comment in the British press about the goal?  “There’s life in the old Drog yet.”

Good News Roundup

It’s been a good week for goals being scored at SPSU this week as well.

Our first ace was from Yusun Chang (Electrical Engineering), who scored $411,634 in a research grant on “Improving Transportation Safety for Sustainable Environments using Vehicular Networking Technology” from the Georgia Department of Transportation.  Yusun is the PI and SPSU is the primary contractor, and John Copeland at Georgia Tech is the co-PI.  The major objectives of the research are to design, implement, and test an emergency message dissemination system using multi-hop vehicular communications for vehicle, pedestrian, and bicyclist safety.  Great job Yusun!

Another winning effort came from Mark Nunes (ETCMA), who scored a major award.  Mark is the Communication and Digital Culture track chair at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association national conference.  It’s a very big organization, with some 125 different area chairs.  This year’s keynote speaker was director Oliver Stone, and last year’s was George Takei (Lt. Sulu of the Starship Enterprise).

At the annual Area Chairs meeting, Mark learned out he been chosen for the 2013 Felicia F. Campbell Area Chair Award, one of two given each year by the organization.  The award is given to area chairs “who have distinguished themselves by their contribution to PCA/ACA. Long-service, building participation in their areas, and professionalism are the hallmarks of the winner of these awards.  Recipients are selected by a committee composed of the Chairperson of the PCA/ACA, the Executive Director of the PCA/ACA, and the Program Coordinator of the PCA/ACA.”  Great job, Mark!

Completing a hat-trick are two successes for SPSU students.  First, the student Surveying and Mapping team took second place in the national Society of Professional Surveyors 12th Annual Student Surveying Competition, held in Sandy, Utah.  Students Blake Blevins, Calvin Johnson (captain), Antonio Sample, Peter Sanchez, and Stefka Vacheva were ably lead by Daniel Branham (CET).  The competition consisted of a quiz-bowl type challenge, as well as submission of a promotional video about the university’s surveying and mapping program.  SPSU’s submission can be seen by clicking here.  Great job, Dan and team!

Second, SPSU-Teach student Jamie Garrett (Physics Education) has been selected as a summer intern for Physics-Quest, a project sponsored by the American Physical Society.  Physics-Quest’s goal is to teach middle school students physics concepts using specially designed tool kits.  Research shows that students as young as 10-11 years old are already starting to make career decisions, so outreach to this age category is critical if the STEM pipeline is to be expanded.

Last Time’s Trivia Contest

Questions last time focused on March Madness, and lots of entries were received.  The   winner was Tom Nelson (Dean, Arts and Sciences) with all five correct.  Tom had gotten them all on a number of earlier occasions, but had always been edged out time-wise by someone else.  Here are the answers:

  1. March comes in like a  but goes out like a                  Lion/lamb
  2. Name of the rabbit at the tea party in Alice in Wonderland.  March Hare
  3. Charitable organization whose motto is “Working together for stronger, healthier babies”.  March of Dimes
  4. Mendelssohn wrote the music for this in 1842.  The Wedding March
  5. Margaret, Josephine, Elizabeth, and Amy.  The March Sisters in the book “Little Women”.

This Week’s Trivia Challenge

In honor of our new computing honor society, today’s trivia challenge focuses on computers.  Usual rules apply.  No looking up the answers now!  SEND ALL ENTRIES BY EMAIL TO zszafran@spsu.edu, since if you put them as a response on the BLOG, everyone will be able to see them!

  1. To err is human, to really foul things up requires                                 .
  2. Someone who tries to exploit a weakness in computer security.
  3. :>)
  4. “Pong” was the first successful commercial one.
  5. The only Disney movie with the word “computer” in its title, it came out in 1969.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to April 8, 2013

  1. Margaret V says:

    Your description of computing in the old days (including shutting down state payroll and the guy who did not seem to know what orthonormal meant) cracked me up. Just the laugh I needed.

  2. t nelson says:

    I remember the stacks of computer cards that had to be walked across a cold campus to “the window” where they’d run your program. Unlike Zvi, who apparently had 75% success, I think my rate was about 50%, usually a missing semicolon on one line. It was a great day when our lab got a terminal from which you could you submit your program without cards or bundling up at midnight. Thanks for the memories.

  3. John Mench says:

    I worked in the USC computer center as an electronics technician in the 60s.
    It was my work scholarship will I earned my BSEE.(I punched a few cards for my engineering classes).

  4. khopper2012 says:

    Yes, I have such dear memories of Grandmother Grace Hopper

  5. Rich Halstead-Nussloch says:

    Go Blue!!!!

    In case you want to sing along:
    Hail! to the victors valiant
    Hail! to the conqu’ring heroes
    Hail! Hail! to Michigan
    The leaders and best!
    Hail! to the victors valiant
    Hail! to the conqu’ring heroes
    Hail! Hail! to Michigan,
    The champions of the West!

    An interesting sidebar is that the Wolverines entered this year’s NCAA Final Four as the champions of the South, which to me is somewhat wackier than being the champions of the west, demonstrating that a lot can happen in the 115 years since the song was penned.

    So, Zvi, I do care and I enjoyed every minute of Blue handling Orange ;-). Go Blue!!!! Beat Red!!!!

    Rich H-N

  6. Marietta Monaghan says:

    Yes, I remember the punch cards, and walking through the cold night to the computer building to have them run. I also remember carefully numbering the cards, (in the upper right-hand corner, with graphite not ink, and as small as possible so as not to confuse the mainframe.) The numbers were necessary, since if you were unfortunate enough to have the wind catch your bundle and toss them as you crossed the dark parking lot, you would be up the rest of the night sorting and putting them back in order, then re-typing/punching the ones you couldn’t find under cars. Then you would be late with the homework because you had to wait again until nightfall to have the cards run. . . . this never happened to me (fortunately) but it did to some other students in my class.


Comments are closed.