Monthly Archives: September 2012

COBOL and the Governator

A student in my class posted about the impending crisis (possibly current crisis) that will occur when all the COBOL programmers retire.  It was a really smart connection to make and it made me think of one of my favorite stories from the history of software.

The COBOL retirement wave is a real problem – in 2006 Computerworld conducted a survey of 352 IT managers and 62% of the respondents were still actively using COBOL.

We don’t teach new programmers how to use COBOL and experienced programmers don’t want to maintain other people’s code, because it’s like trying to navigate the labyrinth of another persons mind –  in a different language.

My favorite example of the COBOL dilemma will always be Schwarzenegger in 2008:

The Governator wanted to cut the salaries of state employees because California was in a budget crisis.  But, to reconfigure the payroll system would take a minimum of six months.  Why?  Because (in part) the last round of layoffs had cut California’s part time COBOL programmers!

And that is why you have to love the history of software.  Arnold Schwarzenegger thwarted by the 1970s version of Skynet

The iPhone 5 Release


The iPhone 5 was released this week and it is slimmer, with a larger screen – but that’s not why I’m writing this post.  Instead, with Apple in the news again, it prompted me to think about the interesting history of the company.

Apple has really been in it for the long game.  They were not always the behemoth they are today.  Everyone has heard the apocryphal stories of Apple’s modest beginnings, but some of us may have forgotten the hard times that Apple has gone through.  For example, in 1997 Microsoft invested $150 million when the failing computer company was on the verge of bankruptcy, in part because of the ill-fated Newton project.

But what Apple has had from its inception is an incredibly talented staff.   And many of those staff were right in Silicon Valley, their light being hidden under a bushel at the Xerox Parc Research Center.  Xerox Parc was the black sheep of Xerox—a heady research environment, developing inventions and innovations that didn’t fit the Xerox product line.  The researchers at the Palo Alto based Xerox Parc produced some of our most important computing technologies, including the mouse, the first graphics program—Superpaint, graphical user interfaces, and Ethernet networking.   Xerox found it difficult to capitalize on these new technologies, and marginalized the elite research institute within the company, creating discontent.  Many of these unsatisfied computer engineers left Xerox Parc for the fledgling Apple Inc.

Xerox PARC has been one of the most influential organizations in computing and while Xerox wasn’t able to capitalize on their developments, with the leadership of Jack Goldman, they created an environment that supported the inventions and innovations of many of the luminaries of the computing revolution. And that reputation still holds true. PARC is currently working on flexible, printed, organic electronics.

Apple keeps their corporate history pretty close to the vest, but hiring Alan Kay, Gary Starkweather and Larry Tesler has to put you ahead of the curve.   Kay is one of the founders of Object Oriented Programming—a dominant programming methodology.  He created the Dynabook, the inspiration for laptops and tablets.  His personal computing philosophy drove the modern information revolution.   Gary Starkweather created the first laser printing technology at Xerox PARC and he later developed Apple’s color sync technology.  Tesler, another Xerox PARC graduate who left for Apple, created the first use of “copy and paste” and later became the VP of the shopping experience for Amazon.

Apple has been playing the long game.  The company has focused on innovation since their inception.  They have lured many great computer scientists and engineers away from other organizations.  Now, that focus is paying off in spades.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Apple/Xerox Parc story read Malcom Gadwell’s article in the May 2011 issue of the New Yorker.  Or, for a longer look, Michael A. Hiltzik’s 1999 book, Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc and the Dawn of the Computer Age.


Space hazards!

Wired informed me today that the Europeans (in conjunction with NOVA) had developed a “Heat-Seeking Telescope [that] Tracks Deadly Space Rocks”.

I’m torn on this.  On one hand, I think to myself, Really?  You spent this kind of money (€30 million) to address the pressing concern of how we can track deadly asteroids.  But then, I think, why the hell not – we spend significantly more money on wars, why not keep an eye on deadly asteroids, too.

Then I realized that the Europeans were actually reporting this completely differently.  The point was to keep our satellites safe from space debris and dust that wouldn’t actually make it to earth.  A little less sexy, but way more sensible given how substantial our dependence on satellite technology has become.

EDIT: As it turns out, upon further research, we are not only trying to track deadly space rocks, we are also in the process of building a fence to keep them out.  How did I only just become aware that we are building a Space Fence.  (Yes, that’s really what they call it.)

Photo credit: Nancy DuVergne Smith

Did I mention the Mars Rover is AWESOME?


NASA.  Seriously.

Planned Parenthood

Listening to Cecile Richards coalesced some of my opinions on Planned Parenthood and why it is an issue worth talking about on the national stage:

  • Estimated number of abortions averted by Planned Parenthood contraceptive services each year: 277,000
  • Percentage of all Planned Parenthood health services that are contraceptive services: 34%
  • Percentage of all Planned Parenthood health services that are abortion services: 3% (Numbers that show this as higher are including emergency contraception in their “definition” of abortion)
  • Planned Parenthood provides nearly one million Pap tests and more than 830,000 breast exams each year
  • Planned Parenthood provides nearly four million tests and treatments for sexually transmitted infections
  • One in five women in the U.S. has visited a Planned Parenthood health center at least once in her life.

(Numbers from Planned Parenthood)

So, if we pull funding for Planned Parenthood, where are these services going to come from?  How do we support the 277, 000 unwanted children that could result from reducing access to contraception?  Who will provide pap smears to the women who used to use Planned Parenthood?  Would rampant breast, ovarian, uterine and cervical cancer in low-income families improve our economy?  Apparently not – at least according to the CDC who is currently spending big bucks on a marketing campaign to make us aware of the threat of gynecological cancers.  One of the problems with cutting this funding is that you need to replace it with something else.

Moreover- why does Planned Parenthood get that funding?  Because in 1970 Nixon signed Title X into law, providing family planning services to low income families.  Not only did Nixon sign this into law, this vote was bipartisan – The Senate vote was, in fact, unanimously in favor of the law.

Why?  Because it used to be common sense that women who can plan their families to work with their incomes and life stages were better parents and better prepared for the workforce. (I’m paraphrasing, but see Brad DeLong’s post on this to see the details)

The ongoing point made by social conservatives is that this isn’t a battle worth fighting – that progressives are pandering to the woman vote by placing this at the forefront of their platform, but isn’t the same true on the other side – Planned Parenthood has received Federal Funding with little outcry for over forty years – why is it suddenly the subject of such divisive tactics?  Isn’t that also pandering?

And most importantly – for those that think we are in a post-feminist era, please note, we are sitting here discussing Title X funding, but who’s ever heard of 42 USC § 247b–5 – the act that provides federal funding for prostate cancer screenings?  Or protesting the use of Medicare for ED medication?  Because men’s health issues are just that, health issues.

Programming and Religion

An interesting question came up in my class on Tuesday. I was asked whether religion has acted as a catalyst or an obstacle on programming.

In programming specifically, the only area where we hit the really existential questions that intersect with religion would be in AI – and these are the sort of questions faced by androids the world over – do you have a soul, emotions, a personality… well, okay, they are the kind of questions androids would face if we had created an android.

But more broadly, the role of religion in science and technology is a fascinating question – we often think of religion as the obstacle to science: Galileo’s house arrest, Bruno being burned at the stake, but religion was also the keeper of scientific knowledge during the Dark Ages (Medieval period). The Jesuits (an order of the Catholic Church) are responsible for some of our most basic of scientific knowledge; Einstein and Newton were both very religious and credited their religion as inspiration or guidelines they used in their work.

Religion doesn’t just sit shoulder to shoulder with science. There is a relationship between them that informs and influences our understanding and interpretation of both.

I think on a personal note, that the history of science teaches us the fallibility of human knowledge – in the sense that we have come so far so quickly, and that there is so much we don’t yet understand about our universe, that believing in science should not preclude believing in your faith (whatever that faith may be).

In programming, the social constructs that act as barriers and catalysts tend to be political – things like funding debates, research choices – and the enormous impact these can play in how technologies develop.

On a lighter note – what if programming languages were religions?