Category Archives: History

BASIC Computer Language’s 50th Birthday

This morning I heard a NPR radio story about the BASIC computer language’s 50th year celebration.  Yesterday, Dartmouth College celebrated by hosting a BASIC @ 50: The Future of Computing panel discussion.

Wow!  When I learned to program in BASIC around 1974-75, BASIC was not even a teenager yet.  I’m a few years older than BASIC, but I am still amazed at the journey from teletype machines to smartphones.

BASIC stands for Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.  This computer language was developed with the intent to be able to program remotely on a teletype, via dial-up to a Time Sharing computer.  BASIC was developed by two Dartmouth College professors, John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz.  Prior to the development of BASIC, Professor Kurtz would have to drive 125 miles to Boston to use a computer at MIT.  The turnaround times could be a week or two, and if you made programming error(s), you could lose weeks of time.  Also, BASIC did not require the use of punch cards.

The professors also wanted to allow people from other academic disciplines to be able to use computers besides the mathematicians and computer folks.

In the NPR broadcast, Dartmouth Professor Dan Rockmore recalled writing a poker game in BASIC.  When I was in high school, my parents celebrated their anniversary with a trip to Las Vegas.  They brought back a dice game, that was a mimic of a slot machine.  Based on the game instructions (my system requirements), I programmed a simple Slot Machine game in BASIC.  Back then everything was text (no images, non-visual).  So I had to print out the fruity names, “Cherry”, “Lemon”, “Orange” on the roll of teletype paper (sorry no Photoshop images or clip art GIF files back then).  But I was able to make the teletype’s “Bell” ring, “ding, ding, ding, …”, when you had a good combination of matching fruit.  I even kept track of how much virtual money you still had, and how much you won or lost on each play.  As the teletype printed out the Slot Machine fruit names, it would bounce slightly across the floor whenever the carriage return went back to the left.

Today the closest thing a smartphone can do is “vibrate”.  But smartphones will never be as loud as a teletype!

BASIC went on to be ported to minicomputers and microcomputers (personal computers).  Microsoft’s Visual Basic was influenced by the BASIC language.

Happy Birthday BASIC!


Google Hiring, Mergers, Acquistions and Robots

Recently journalist and author Thomas Friedman from the New York Times wrote two commentaries on “How To Get a Job at Google”Part 1 was published on February 22, 2014.  Part 2 appeared on April 19, 2014.  Friedman twice interviewed Lazlo Block, Vice President of People Operations at Google.  Here is a YouTube video of Lazlo Block, speaking about Google’s hiring process.

Friedman’s two op-eds focus on direct hiring of employees by Google.  But this might also give some insight into jobs offered by other tech companies, and possibly other employers in the future.

What the Friedman op-eds do not point out is that Google grows not just through direct hiring, but also through mergers and acquisitions of other smaller, up and coming tech related companies.  Wikipedia has an entire page dedicated to tracking Google’s Mergers and Acquisitions.

Google’s first acquisition was on February 12, 2001 of Deja, whose coveted product was UseNet.  UseNet was the place for online forums of Internet users prior to the World-Wide-Web (www) and browsers that we all know today.  Since then, as of April 14, 2014, Google has acquired its 147th company, Titan Aerospace, which brings with it Project Loon, which seeks to provide Internet access to rural locations.

If you scan through this list of 147 companies, so far, you can see that Google wears many hats, including being an advertising and marketing company (via Google Ads and Ad Sense), a smartphone OS (Android), a video sharing service (YouTube), etc, etc.  This past weekend, NPR’s On The Media program highlighted “Robots and Artificial Intelligence”, including “Google’s Robot Brigade”.

What this suggests is that many Google employees were previously employees of other small companies, scattered throughout the U.S. and the world.  So another job option for college grads and other job seekers is that you can A) go work for another tech related firm, and B) start up your own tech company.  Who knows, maybe someday your employer or your company might be scooped up by Google, or other large tech firms (Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, et al).  So you can work in tech jobs elsewhere besides Silicon Valley.  Hopefully, more tech companies will spring up here in Vermont, and not just in Chittenden County.  How about here in Rutland County?

Continue reading

Next Meeting: March 22, Video and Discussion

Saturday, March 22, 2014, 1-3PM
Rutland Free Library, Fox Room (upstairs)
10 Court Street, Rutland, VT

We will show a video presentation by author Douglas Rushkoff, followed by a discussion.  The presentation is based on Rushkoff’s book “Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age“.

I just finished reading this interesting book.  You don’t need to read his book beforehand (unless you want to).   Just come and enjoy the video.  But if you are interested, the book’s ISBN# is 978-1593764265 (152 pages).

Many of us use smartphones, tablet computers and laptops.  There is more to “computer literacy” than knowing which buttons to press, where to click, or an app’s features.  Mr. Rushkoff is not advocating that we all become computer programmers.  We certainly don’t need to be mechanics to drive a car.  Instead, Mr. Rushkoff makes the distinction between “driving the car” versus merely being a “passenger”.  That analogy can be applied to our use of technology.

Mr. Rushkoff also compares our advancements in technology to past inventions like the written word and the printing press.  He points out how the larger population seems to be one “version” behind in how we use and adapt these advancements.  In other words, we don’t always use them to their full potential.

Rushkoff’s final command and chapter title is “Program or Be Programmed”.  The word “command” (instead of Commandment), is a play on the word used by computer programmers, as in submitting commands to run our computers (as some of you did in the recent “Hour of Code” event).

All ages welcome.  Hope to see you on March 22nd.

Happy Birthday Grace Hopper: “Grandma COBOL”

This morning while listening to Writer’s Almanac segment on VPR, with Garrison Keillor, he mentioned that today, December 9th is the birthday of Grace Hopper (her 107th birthday).  One of her nicknames was “Grandma COBOL“, as she is credited for the invention of the computer programming language known as COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language).

Grace Hopper served as the technical consultant to a committee that defined the COBOL language.  She developed the first “compiler” for a computer programming language.  A compiler converts human-readable commands (letters, words, numbers and symbols) into computer code (machine readable code).  Before that, computers were programmed almost exclusively by numbers.  Her development of the compiler led later to the invention of COBOL.

Grace Hopper was a computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral.  She coined the phrase “debugging” a program, after a moth became stuck in a computer relay on the Mark II computer at a US Navy research lab.  Among her many accomplishments, she also worked on the team that developed the UNIVAC computer.  I had worked on a Sperry-Univac computer in 1978, after graduation from community college.

Later this morning, I noticed that Google’s homepage was paying tribute to Grace Hopper with a hand drawn picture of Grace Hopper working on what looks to be the console to an early and very large mainframe computer.

After I was reminded of Grace Hopper and the COBOL computer language, as I was commuting to my programming job an hour drive from Rutland, I thought back to when I learned COBOL.  My college instructor, Ms. Lesnau, at Macomb Community College (north of Detroit) taught me COBOL.  I took her COBOL I & II courses in the Spring and Fall semesters in 1977.  I later transferred to Michigan State University and graduated in December of 1981, during a recession.  The Data Processing manager at Ford Credit who hired me told me that I was one of the very few MSU computer science graduates who had any COBOL training or experience.  My two classes with Ms. Lesnau surely helped me get hired during a jobs recession!

I was able to locate my community college COBOL instructor via a Google search.  I called her today on my lunch hour, on the birthday of Grace Hopper.  Ms. Lesnau is now in her 80s.  Although she didn’t remember me at first, as we talked, and I mentioned the year (“Were you a day or evening student?”), and some of my fellow classmates and friends that I met in her class, she started to remember a few things about that time period.

I had a wonderful conversation with my COBOL college instructor.  She uses an I-Phone.  She was complaining about the Obama-Care websites.  She quipped, “Don’t they even test these programs before they put them into production?”  Grace Hopper would have called it “debugging”!

Continue reading