Thursday, July 23, 2009

Why do we interact with computers the way we do?

Well, I can tell you, I think the answer will a surprise to some of you. Do you like Greateful Dead? Hey, they are part of the story, at least according to some (I have research the subject by reading a bunch of books, but I have not myself interviewed anyone or done any actual research, but that said, I think my sources are credible).

The first real invention that brought things close to todays computers was the flip-flop in the 1920's, this set the scene for binary computers. But this flip-flop was electromechanical, made for relays and such, and although easier to work with than mechanical parts and pretty reliable, it was just to slow and complex, not to mention expensive.

So now we have digital computers, but still rather slow and clunky. We want electronic computers. But electronic in the 1930's and 1940's meant tubes. Which are WAY faster than relays, but a lot less reliable. Despite this, computers were built using tubes, 1000s of them. And they worked, to the surprise of many in those days. In 1946, ENIAC was up and running.

Now, ENIAC was WAY fast (in those days at least), but the problem was, what do you do with them. On the grand scale, there were two lines of thought here:
  • Office automation - A silly term, but I use it anyway, and not even close to how we know office automation today, with spreadsheets, databases and word processors. Rather, this was batch oriented processing of tax and insurance forms, banking, to an extent airline bookings and so on.
  • Pure number crunching - This was something new. Not that computers could do them, but that they could do them at such a breathtaking speed, leaving even the best mathematician behind.
But the deal was this: For the first use, the traditional IBM-mainly equipment with punched cards and semi-automated procedures worked fine. For the latter use, there was only so many things to do, mainly in defence.

But the scientists and semi-scientists and the techo-press in the 1950s, completely techo-fied and without any kind of second thoughts to technology. Technology can solve ANY problem! (Like DDT, yeah right. Typical 1950s. Like 1999 - 2001, ANYTHING can be sold on the net, including dog-food. Yeah right).

After a while though, the general view, among most scientists and the public and the press was that in the future we would see tow uses:
  • Batch oriented office automation, as I have already described. This was boring and uninteresting, and no one cared much, but it needed to be done. But punched cards could do the job as well, so here the technology wasn't really adding much.
  • Artificial Intelligence - No, I am not talking about a myself on a late night after a truckload of beers, that is just Artificial. No, this was something that the scientists, the press and the public got 100% hooked on. The giant super brain! (Again, this is most definitively not me after that load of beer, ask any woman in the vicinity).
The Giant Superbrain was the concept of future computing, no doubt. You just tell it want you want done, and it does it for you, using some robots and things. We now know that things didn't turn out like this, the Giant Superbrain is still far away.

But between these tow uses of computer power, in the 1950's was envision... Nothing. Well, there was a group of people with a different idea. One where the vision was computing that we humans interacted with, to get more knowledge computing power, but that we control. Note that in the two main projected uses, interaction with the "user" was either non-existing or typically plain-language, just as with a normal person (again except me on a late night then).

This third group of people, thinking of the computer and Augmenting the human bran was actually on to something. And they were not alone. The defence had a problem with soldiers that just got tired of fighting (the Korea had more or less just ended). Also, when tired, they acted irrational and did not do a good "soldier job" in short. Along came, no, not the transistor and not a truckload of Vitamin-B rich beverages, but LSD.

LSD in the 1950's was not considered a recreational drug, but something that could help, or again Augment, the human brain. The same way as the small group, lead by no one else than the inventor of, among many other things, the mouse, Doug Engelbart, was looking to Augment the human using computers. And although one means of augmentation was chemical and one was electronic, the group that was experimenting with LSD, in a true psychedelic environment with flashing light and all that, was linking up with Engelbarts group. One reason was that these two groups were both located in the Valley, that was not yet Silicon Valley.

The LSD group were testing LSD on people in weirdo environments, apparently Engelbart tried it also, but it backfired on him and he would not do it more than once. These "Acid tests" as they were called, were supported for a long time by US Army, and also by, (hey, this is getting really weird now), L Run Hubbard! And house band at the Acid Tests were the highest ranking psychedelia band in SF at the time, the Dead!

The two groups were close for a long while, but eventually the Acids tests stopped, as the results weren't were consistent, and the drug had been found to have negative issues also (you didn't expect that, did you? The defence getting into a new technology that backfires on them).

In the end, Doug Engelbart want on to invent much of the computer as we see it today, from a user interface technology POV. An influence wes, to a large extent, Vannevar Bush (more on him later). But Engelbart never got much credibility for his work and never made any money on it. But most of how we interact with computer can be traced back to Bush, Engelbart orTed Nelson.

And remember that just using a terminal to interact with a computer was something unheard of in the 1950s when this happened, and no one envisioned that to happen anyway. The computer had to be kept busy all the time, with by processing income tax report and controlling the robot that was cleaning the house. But waiting for a user to press the next key in the URL he is looking for on the internet? No way!


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Introduction to my Computer History blog

I am a software guy, I admit that, but I have also worked with Hardware, way back. The reason I say this is that most history on Computers are related to hardware, and there is some good reason this is so. Mainly, the history of computer hardware is older, much older, than the history on Software.

This said though, Software and the Software industry is old enough (speaking of software as an entity of it's own, not related to Hardware, it is approaching 50 years) to start telling the History of software.

But for myself, even though I am a Software guy, Computer Hardware has at the moment a much more intriguing and interesting history. Being a MySQLer though, I will make an attempt to blog about as much Software History as I can. And I can tell you I have a few interesting stories on the issue of computer, and computing, history up my sleeves, including Software history. But I am not a researcher in the field myself, I just read on stuff, as much as I can actually, and there are some good books on the history of software coming out.

What are my sources then? I try to collect and read as much as I can. IEEE publishes a magazine on computer history, and there are a bunch of books on the subject. Among the books, I can see three kinds of books that provide me with material:
  • Books on the explicit subject of Computer History. This is obvious, and I have a bunch of these books.
  • Books on specific attributes of computing. These are books that do not set out to document computer history, but do so anyway. Examples are books on .com era, books about the crypto computers during the war and books on the Unix crowd and other similar subjects.
  • Thirdly, we have biographies and such books. Some of these are very specific, such as books on IBM, books about Eniac and on DEC, Sun etc.
All these books are valuable, I own a bunch of them and I like to read and talk on them. I am preparing a talk on Computer History now, and as this is still early days in this particular subject, and it is still difficult to see all the implications of what happened, I will present this in a different manner (a manner that suits blogging quite well, incidentally). I plan to have a script and a talk on a bunch of subjects, each talk around 20 minutes or so, and then provide these as mini-dramas. I know this might not be scientific for enough for everybody, but my aim is to make this interesting for a larger crowd, not to smooch a few scientists.

So, now you know what I am about to blog about here, broadly. And before I finish up, any stories, suggestions, facts, fun ideas etc. that you have on this subject, let me hear them, I am open for suggestion.

And before I leave you, I will end with a tip for my next blog post on this subject. Drugs, today, illegal, the US army and the completely insane and innocent view on the technology of the 1950's. That's a subject for you!