Where’s the Date, Man?

Mark Berry July 2, 2011

Enough with the calculated time spans already.

It seems like more and more blogs and discussion posts are going towards the format “Written x days/weeks/years ago” rather than specifying an actual date. My question is:  why?

Missing Date 1

Yes, date stamps on posts are supposed to give an idea of how fresh the post is. But they should also tell me the exact date when an article was written.

Not to brag, but I’m pretty good with Gregorian dates. I know that July precedes August, for example. If you tell me that an article was written on July 15, 2008, and I see another article was written on August 1, 2008, I can tell which article was written first! (I know, it’s a gift.) However if you tell me that both articles were written “almost three years ago,” I have no clue.

Missing Date 2

What I’m not good at is doing date arithmetic in my head. Quick, what is today minus 2145 days? Let’s see 2145 divided by 365 is … 5.877 years ago … so what month was that?

Maybe “freshness” dates on Facebook and LinkedIn are okay, from “a few minutes ago” up to about “4 days ago.” But if you’re writing anything that you hope will be relevant for more than a week, man up and put a real date on it for cryin’ out loud.


How DSL Works

Mark Berry June 2, 2011

I’ve been working with my ISP and local telco trying to resolve DSL speed issues. In so doing, I’m researching terms like DSLAM, ATM, Redback, etc.  Best explanation so far:

The theory is simple. Acronyms flow down the phone line from the phone company toward your computah. Monthly contributions of currency flows in the other direction. When you fail to respond to the ISP’s request for money, the acronyms stop flowing. The more currency you upload, the faster the acronyms arrive.

Thanks go to Jeff Liebermann, who apparently posted this to the alt.internet.wireless newsgroup back in 2004. The thread is re-posted here and here.


Network Cabling and the Not-So-Proverbial Rat’s Nest

Mark Berry May 16, 2011

I decided to upgrade the in-wall cables in my home office from Category 5 to Category 6. Not a big deal since the conduit is already there, right? Well I wasn’t counting on this.


Windows Phone 7: The First Week

Mark Berry February 20, 2011

My LG Quantum arrived five days ago and I’ve been trying to get used to Windows Phone 7 after saying good-bye to Android 2.1 update 1 on the Samsung Captivate.


Good-Bye Android

Mark Berry February 11, 2011

I bought an AT&T Samsung Captivate in November 2010 and used it for almost three months. I finally gave up on Samsung and Android and returned the phone yesterday.


Hallmark Sound Card Yields CMOS Battery!

Mark Berry September 24, 2009

Feeling proud of myself today in a McGiver-ish kind of way ;).

You know those semi-fun, semi-annoying Hallmark birthday cards with sound? The ones that make you wonder whether it's worth spending five bucks on a birthday card?

Well I was about to toss one today when I thought, hmm, I live in California, I'm not supposed to toss batteries in the trash. So I ripped open the card to pull out the battery and lo and behold, it's a Newsun CR2032 3V Lithium battery. CR2032 is the size of the CMOS battery in all the Dell computers I've checked. Sure enough, it's working fine as a replacement in an old Dimension desktop.

Woo-hoo! Free CMOS battery! Now, I wonder what I should to with the miniature speaker that was in the card…


Airport Out of Virtual Memory

Mark Berry September 12, 2009

Racing through the Colorado Springs (COS) airport yesterday, I just had to stop and snap this picture of the Arrivals screen:

Airport Windows Error 002.cropped 

Sure enough, a common Windows error:

Airport Windows Error 002.cropped.message only

Fortunately I was not trying to check the 4:10pm arrivals!

Another blogger caught this error and an actual BSOD in Bangkok:

Airport Digital Advertising Does The Media Match the Medium?


The Way We Were, 1977 to 1984

Mark Berry October 19, 2007

Today as I was pondering some modern architectural paradigms, I got to thinking about my procedural programming roots, which led me down memory lane to my early computing days.

Basement Computing

IBM 370/168, credit IBM ArchivesBack at university, my computer science classes taught me about bubble sorts and data structures like linked lists and b-trees. We learned to write a structured FORTRAN program when the compiler didn’t enforce the structure. We learned Pascal, which did enforce the structure. We did a little assembler on PDP 8s and PDP 11s, pressing a toggle switch and watching the registers change. To use the bigger CDC computer, we descended to the basement of the Technical Institute to submit our programming lessons as batches of card. We waited impatiently until the traction-fed output was wrapped around the card deck and stuffed in pigeon-hole style mail slots. One of the student employees placed a sign above the window that promised, “A $5 bill behind the job card reduces turnaround time.” Eventually we progressed to a room full of data terminals.

Once I got into the real world in 1979, this all proved pretty much useless; I was asked instead to use COBOL to read in magnetic tapes full of historical accounting data and print various reports.

That company used a water-cooled IBM 370/168 that looked a lot like the one pictured above. What is not shown in the picture is the raised floor required for all the cables, nor the the garage-sized room full of backup batteries. Of course mere mortals were not allowed to touch the computer; the computer room, with its arctic air conditioning, was secured behind keycard-locked doors and took up a goodly portion of the building’s basement. Unescorted programmers could get as far as an outer lobby and peer through the glass at the humming blue monster. The machine’s operations manual lined the side of this outer vestibule in a five-foot-wide binder rack.

Punch Drunk

Actually, we programmers didn’t have to go down to the basement that often. A team of half a dozen key punch operators sat in a small room adjacent to the computer room. We could write our programs out on wide coding pads with a small block for each letter, then send them via inter-office mail for keying. They would then take these pads and create stacks of punch cards for us.

IBM 129 Card Data Recorder, credit ibmcollectibles.com
I don’t think many people today fully appreciate how a key punch machine works. Every time you press a key, it punches a hole in the card. Well actually by this time, the IBM 129 Card Data Recorder was in use, which held an entire card (80 characters) in a buffer so that it was possible to back space if one made an error. When you finished the card, you pressed a Release key to punch the entire card. To ensure accuracy, each coding pad (or data entry sheet, as this is also how customer data got into the system) was keyed in twice, by different operators. The first operator punched from blank cards. The second operator re-entered the same data but with the already-punched cards in the hopper; if a discrepancy was found, the operator rejected that card and created a new one.

Even with turnaround of only a few hours, this process of dropping off coding pads for punching was rather laborious, especially when the only change required was to add one of those pesky periods that COBOL was always complaining about. So we also got a card punch machine for the programmers to make minor modifications. I remember how excited I was that we got one with an LED display that actually allowed looking at the text before punching it.

Winds of Change

IBM 3270 display terminal, credit Newcastle University

By the time I left that company in 1984, we had advanced to IBM 3270 display terminals connected directly to the mainframe. Although some “old school” programmers didn’t like the thought of having to type in their own programs, I thought it was great. I loved the powerful editor (XEDIT) on those terminals that could do things like display only the lines containing a certain string.

Also by 1984, we had started getting into a revolutionary relational database from Germany called Adabas. The concepts I learned then about database normalization still apply today. We were starting to plan for interactive programs that would actually allow end users to look up and enter data on demand. We were reading Tom De Marco’s Structured Analysis and System Specification. There was even a PC or two knocking around, mostly used for word processing. I remember one of my colleagues who was convinced that the PC was going to revolutionize computing. He planned to buy one, quit his job, and start his own computing company. I thought he was a little crazy.



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