THE  COMPUTER  AT  CHRISTMASTIME

MANILA
, DECEMBER 30, 2006
  (STAR) HINDSIGHT By Josefina T. Lichauco - For me, Christmastime has always been full of joyous moments on one hand, and deeply nostalgic moments on the other, bordering many times on sadness. It has been said that as one gets older, the cup of nostalgia brews stronger and stronger, and one must try not to get caught in the sadness of it all. Christmas, after all, is a day of rejoicing… it was on this day that the Child Jesus was born.

And so, I have a full computer load of Christmas wishes for all my readers, as I give you some computer tidbits that have given me laughter and knowledge at the same time. Perhaps many of you know them already, but it is written with all the best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.

Did you know that the first electronic digital computer was the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrated Calculator), originated by the University of Pennsylvania in the United States? It weighed 30 tons and took 15,000 square feet to house. It contained 18,000 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and 6,000 switches. Many have said that when ENIAC was turned on, the lights in Philadelphia, where U-Penn is located, dimmed. In 1983, when I first heard about it, ENIAC could add 500 numbers in one second. Of course, today that number has increased exponentially, as the computer itself has shrunk and compressed.

On the other hand, at the time I read about ENIAC and its size, I learned about INTEL APX 432, the equivalent of a medium-size IBM computer, packed into three coat-button-size silicon chips. It could address about 70 million memory cells – 32,000 times as many as ENIAC – and could add 500 numbers in one one-thousandth of a second.

Just the other day, at a sit-down dinner, the guest seated on my right was a French national very much into technology, who told me that the first French restaurant to use computers for waiters was located at Valenciennes, France. In 1981, its proprietor, Georges Guillaume, a graduate of the famous Ecole Polytechnique, installed computer keyboards at the tables. Customers gave their orders by pushing buttons that called up different menus–aperitif, hors d’ oeuvres, entree, bar–and then pushed more buttons for their choices. Customers found this a novelty and flocked to Monsieur Gillaume’s restaurant.

What about the first home computer? It was not the Apple II or TRS-80. It was the Honeywell H316 "Kitchen Computer," which was offered in Neiman Marcus’ 1969 catalog. This US$10,600 system (mandatory teletype terminal not included), could be programmed for menu planning and other household chores. It could even keep track of golf scores and stock investments.

In the technology game, the Japanese can never be left out. The world’s first known "most powerful computer" is the Hitachi Hydra, capable of performing 200 million instructions per second.

Asia is also infamous for introducing what, to date, is the most disgusting product: Sonic Productions’ Sexus Chronograph, a digital watch made in Hong Kong by the Cheong Koon Co. that displays explicit sex acts of every imaginable type, and four-letter words on its face, emitting a sexy moan when the alarm goes off.

Perhaps the next most disgusting is "Custer’s Revenge," a pornographic video game that depicts General Custer dodging arrows to rape a trussed Indian maiden.

Back in 1972, engineers were still using the slide rule for their calculations. Bill Hewlett, one of the founders of Hewlett-Packard (HP), thought it would be simpler, easier, and more accurate to give the engineers a scientific calculator to do the work. HP’s management was skeptical. Besides, market research indicated that there was going to be no market for a $400 calculator when slide rules then cost only $20. But Hewlett said that it did not matter whether anyone would be interested. He, the boss, wanted it, and so it was done. The HP-35 with performance capabilities comparable to the old ENIAC was introduced. It became the hottest product ever advertised in the computer trade press and by 1980, scientific calculators had driven slide-rule makers out of business.

Will there ever be a paperless office? Some offices in the world proclaim that they are. But look at their wastebaskets to confirm it. Ask Amy Wohl who, in the 1980s, was a well-known automation consultant from Pennsylvania, who was quoted as saying that the paperless office will arrive at about the same time as the paperless toilet.

In 1979, Xerox claimed in its advertising that today’s office has changed very little from its turn-of-the-century counterpart. Most executives still write their letters in longhand on yellow legal-size pads; secretaries use typewriters with keyboards designed to slow their typing speed, considering that the first typewriter jammed if they went too fast. Tons and tons of paperwork die an unread death amid mile after mile of filing cabinets. That’s the reason one of the hottest and most urgent uses for computers today is office automation.

Word processing, teleconferencing, intelligent photocopiers, computerized telephone systems, executive computers, etc., have all been part of the massive push for the paperless office. To hear Amy Wohl say that the world has to wait for the paperless toilet to see the paperless office could be an exaggeration. These offices exist today, but the toilet paper seems secure in the toilet.

Would you like to know the origin of the word "bug," which was coined in the 1940s and derived from its antonym, "debug"? An operator discovered a dead moth that was causing malfunctions in the signal relays of the Mark I Automatic Relay Calculator at Harvard. From then on, an attempt to fix malfunctions was called "debugging the system." The original moth achieved immortality in programming jargon.

Sometime in the Nineties, at a telecom conference dinner held in the beautiful medieval city of Malta, a certain Professor Hopper, who had worked on the Mark I program and had witnessed this entomological etymology, informed me that the moth’s remains can still be viewed. It is taped to a page in a logbook housed in a naval museum in Virginia.

By the way, I am certain you have come across the cavalcade of illnesses brought on by contact with computers, which have been growing. A number of video-game-related hazards have been catalogued, such as calluses, blisters, arthralgia, tendinitis, ganglion cysts, numbness, and video elbow. In London, Dr. D.N. Rushton traced an epileptic seizure in a patient to space war games–lights flashing at 15 cycles per second apparently set off the seizure. From London, medical bulletins have been released that "Electronic Space War Game Epilepsy" is a special category of photoconvulsive epilepsy.

It has been reported that the first microprocessor was developed in 1970. Today, there are more mircroprocessors than there are people on Planet Earth.

The world’s most miniaturized computer is the supernatural God-given human brain that we all have, with ten trillion circuits jammed into an area the size of a cauliflower.

And from the human brain comes desire, such as that of a well-known computer professor and author at one of the big technology schools in Europe. The lady professor wanted to know who her biological mother was. Through her excellent computer maneuvers, she found her mother four days after she started her search on the Internet. Her mother, now a semi-blind 67-year-old woman, had given up her daughter at birth. But that inexplicable mother-daughter bond remained. After 38 years, the yearning to look for her mother could no longer be controlled. They have since been reunited through a very touching and heartwarming reunion.

The human brain sparked the heart to seek the mother through a computer journey the lady professor was excellently qualified to undertake. It’s a good Christmas story for it happened only last week. (The identities have been withheld for security reasons, I was told.)

Christmas, after all, is a story of love.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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