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Archive for the month “June, 2013”

All the hardware at COMDEX Spring 1983

I have an interest in technology companies that can survive over the course of many decades – IBM is one company that comes to mind. To that end, I’ve been trying to research some of the technology companies that existed in, say, the late 1970s, in an attempt to figure out why so few of them have survived to the present day.

So I figured that I’d read a report on the SPRING 1983 COMDEX show. Tom R. Halfhill of COMPUTE! wrote this feature, and one thing struck me immediately – there is precious little discussion of software. Most of the buzz at that COMDEX concerned various hardware manufacturers.

So who did Halfhill feature in his report? While he mentioned the leading firms – “Commodore, Texas Instruments, Atari, and Tandy” – he spent his time uncovering some new emerging gems.

The newest British entry is the Oric-1, manufactured by Oric Products International Ltd., of Berkshire, England. Reputedly the second best-selling micro in Britain and Europe (next to the Sinclair), the Oric-1 appears to be a good computer in search of a good U.S. distributor….

Of course, the Japanese aren’t standing idly by, either. Their newest export to the U.S. is the Sord M5, a $199 computer with impressive graphics and three different plug-in BASICs.

In addition to these computers, Halfhill discussed various dot matrix printers, joysticks, and modems (300 baud!). There was a discussion of the competing microfloppy formats – 3 1/2″, 3 1/4″, and 4″ were all fighting it out.

Throughout my career I have been a software person rather than a hardware person, so I did appreciate Halfhill’s brief software discussion:

Now that more schools are acquiring computers for their students, and more parents are buying home computers for their children, the demand for good educational software is becoming almost unquenchable. Fortunately, some companies with background in other educational fields are starting to get involved in software.

Among these is Scholastic, Inc., of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Remember the Weekly Reader? Scholastic is now introducing Wizware, a line of programs for Apple, VIC-20, Atari, and Texas Instruments computers. The first samples are entertaining and colorful and make good use of each computer’s special features. Among the interesting programs at the show were Turtle Tracks, which uses turtle graphics to teach programming by creating drawings and songs; The Square Pairs, a memory game; and Your Computer, a how-to introduction to computers with a robot narrator.

Another line of educational software was displayed by Edu-Ware Services, Inc., of Agoura Hills, California. Most were for the Apple, with a few for the Atari. Ranging from preschool to college level, the programs cover basic math, algebra, spelling, reading, perception, and SAT/PSAT preparation. One of the most interesting packages was Hands On BASIC Programming, an introduction to Applesoft BASIC with additional instruction on more advanced BASICs. It includes a 185-page manual and two disks of sample programs.

It’s interesting to see who WASN’T mentioned in the COMDEX wrap-up. IBM was only mentioned in relation to its aforementioned 4″ microfloppy disk format. Apple is not mentioned as an exhibitor, although many firms offered peripherals and software for Apple computers. Hewlett-Packard is not mentioned at all, and neither is Compaq. Osborne was still around, but didn’t merit attention by Halfhill. Perhaps this was because Halfhill was trying to highlight the latest shiny new toys for his readers, and everyone already knew about Apples and Osbornes.

Oh, and as for Tom himself, you can find him at http://www.halfhill.com/. Jim Ulvog will be displeased to learn that the site claims to be “hosted by 100% wind energy.”

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Take me out coach, I don’t know how to play

Songwriters write about the things they know, which can cause some difficulties when the song is heard by people of different cultures. I was one of many people who had to learn what “vegemite” was when Men at Work’s “Down Under” became popular in the United States. (In a similar fashion, when Midnight Oil sang about “45 degrees” in “Beds Are Burning,” it took me a while to realize that the band was talking about very hot temperatures.)

But what of the effect of time on song lyric interpretation?

In the early 1970s, Joe Walsh composed and recorded a song called “Rocky Mountain Way.” His European fans were presumably puzzled by some of the lyrics:

Bases are loaded and Casey’s at bat
Playin’ it play by play
Time to change the batter

Even those Americans who were not familiar with the 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat” still knew what sport Walsh was discussing. And although there was no major league baseball team in Colorado at the time – the Rockies would not come until much later – the Triple A Denver Bears were playing in the state in 1973, the year the record was released.

Since 1973, there has of course been one famous song that referenced baseball – John Fogerty’s “Centerfield.”

But what about today’s music? How often does the beloved national pastime crop up in 21st century songs?

I thought of this when listening to a Los Angeles Sparks commercial on the radio. The Sparks, of course, are a team in the Women’s National Basketball Association, and unlike the men, they play on a summer schedule. So when advertising on Los Angeles sports radio, and bearing in mind that the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers had been eliminated from the NBA playoffs, and the Los Angeles Kings had been eliminated from the NHL playoffs, the Sparks chose to advertise that they are now “the only game in town.”

And for many in Los Angeles, the Sparks truly are the only game in town. The Los Angeles Dodgers, and Rita Moreno of Arte’s baseball team down the freeway, have no meaning in their lives.

Don’t believe me? Look at the statistics. Brad Wells wrote the following in October – yes, October – 2010.

Last night, a boring Monday Night Football contest between two back-up quarterbacks in the city of Jacksonville drew a better TV rating (7.2 percent) than the American League Championship Series (ALCS) playoff game between the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers. That game drew a terrible 6.5.

And according to a 2003 report from Gallup, baseball has long since disappeared from the national consciousness:

For many years, Gallup has asked Americans which sport is their “favorite sport to watch.” Baseball, long known as the national pastime, easily topped the list from 1937-1960, with slightly more than one in three Americans naming it as their favorite sport. But a 1972 Gallup Poll showed football overtaking baseball as Americans’ favorite sport, a distinction it continues to hold today. Meanwhile, the percentage claiming baseball as their favorite sport has continued to decline, while basketball and auto racing are increasing their popularity. Gallup’s most recent data, from December 2002, show 37% of Americans saying football is their favorite sport, followed by basketball at 13% and baseball at 12%.

And considering the steriod issues that plagued baseball after 2003 – things to which Wells alluded in his article – I suspect that baseball’s popularity has not reversed its course.

So if you want to speak cryptically among today’s youth, sprinkle phrases such as “bats four hundred” and “three and two” into your conversation. They’ll have no idea what you’re talking about.

The telegram, 1844-2013?

Back in 2011, before I officially started this blog, I wrote a post entitled The typewriter, 1867-2011. The last typewriter manufacturer – Godrej and Boyce in Mumbai, India – had shut down its production plant.

Well, you can add to the list of technologies beginning with the letter T and being used in India and nowhere else. Kevin Nunez alerted me to this Newser article:

5,000 telegrams are still sent every day in India. But that’s all coming to an end on July 13, when the country’s state-owned telecom company, BSNL, will end its telegraph service for good.

And that’s the end of the telegram – sort of.

In the process of researching the first date of telegram service, I ran across a company called USA Telegram. However, their telegrams are only delivered to Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill, and the website has a last copyright date of 2009.

Why Lem Barney is probably wrong about the future of football, even though he’s right

Lem Barney is a former professional football player who, according to USA Today, had some interesting things to say about his former livelihood.

Lem Barney is an NFL legend, a Hall of Famer who made his living playing football.

And he wouldn’t do it again.

Speaking Friday at the Sound Mind Sound Body Camp in Southfield, Mich., the Detroit Lions great said the sport would be gone within the next two decades….

“It’s a great game, and I think it’s the greatest game if you like gladiators. It’s the greatest game for yesteryear’s gladiators. But in the next 10 to 20 years, society will alleviate football altogether because of how strong it’s becoming, how big it’s becoming and the tenacity that it already is. And it’s only going to get worse.”

Barney was on a panel with some college football coaches, who (according to writer Mark Snyder) “appeared frozen” when Barney made his statements.

Maybe the coaches had suffered concussions themselves.

However, despite the numerous issues with people who suffered from football concussions, I’m not sure that Barney is right about the demise of football – even with Gregg Doyel’s 2012 input into the conversation:

Today it’s Troy Aikman saying he’s not sure he would let his son play football. Soon it’ll be the young parent down the street. Then more of them. And more.

You can’t play football without football players.

While Doyel’s statement is true, there are a number of businesses that are dependent upon advertising to football players, and there are a number of teams that need football revenue, and there are a number of cities that need football gate receipts.

And even if every parent in every one of the 50 United States refuses to let their kids play football, the advertisers and the teams and the cities will ensure that a steady supply of new football players can be acquired from outside of the country. They may even get their friends in Congress – themselves dependent upon the money and the votes supplied by these stakeholders – to approve new visa regulations to get professional football players into this country to do the job that no American is willing to do.

And with a steady supply of impoverished football players from the third and fourth worlds, football will hum along.

Of personal interest – Stanley A. White’s and Richard Reneau’s accounts of the beginnings of Printrak

This post is primarily of personal interest to me, but it’s my blog so nyah nyah.

The IEEE has published an oral history from Stanley A. White, who joined Autonetics, left to go to college, and then returned and stayed on after the company became part of Rockwell. While he stayed with Rockwell in the 1980s when the “Printrak” portion was sold to De La Rue, White was there for the beginnings of what would become Printrak (the company that I joined in the mid-1990s that is now part of MorphoTrak, where I still work).

Here’s the relevant excerpt:

White:

We used to joke that necessity is the mother of invention, assumption is the mother of screw-ups, and Autonetics is the mother of reorganization. I was eager to see what lay ahead when in 1972 opportunity beckoned again. The Electronics Research Center offered me the challenge of establishing a new Digital Systems Research Group within the Information Sciences Branch of the Advanced Technology (AT) Department. I was appointed Group Scientist of Digital Systems, rounded up some tried and proven performers and we were off and running.

AT contained an intense concentration of genius and was headed by Dr. Dick Gudmundsen, a world renowned laser physicist and all-round good guy. A component organization of AT, Information Sciences, was headed by Dr. Visvaldis Vitols, known as V2. Three incredibly talented senior staff members who worked for V2 were Dr. Art Rabinowitz, a speech-recognition expert, and two extraordinarily sharp EEs, Dr. John Riganati and Dr. Jim Paul. The Information Sciences senior staff was then further strengthened with the addition of DSP expert Dr. Tien Lin Chang and image-processing expert Dr. Dave Hench. Information Sciences had picked up the DSP (digital-signal-processing) responsibility for much of the company. We were in the midst of speech (Jim) and image (everybody) processing, encoding, implementation, and support for the radar (me) and sonar (V2 and me) shops. Jim had developed a real-time adaptive filter for speech filtering based on the TRW MAC chip. He did the complete design down to the pin-outs over Christmas vacation, and quickly brought a product line (ADAP 256 and ADAP 1024) to market in record time. ADAPs became very popular with law-enforcement agencies for cleaning up recordings of jail-house confessions and the like.

Our biggest contract was the FBI Automated Fingerprint Reader System. For a while it seemed to absorb the entire staff of Info Sciences.

Nebeker:

Did you keep track of what happened to these people?

White:

Jim quit and founded his own Virginia-based company that now designs and manufactures digital adaptive signal processors for law-enforcement agencies. John became a Bureau Chief at the former National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute for Standards and Technology. Tien-Lin died of brain cancer. Dave still works in image processing, currently for the Air Force at Rome NY. Art stayed with the fingerprint reader that was bought by Printrax, and V2 retired.

Incidentally, I found Rabinowitz on LinkedIn; he left Printrak several years before I arrived. Riganati and Vitols are cited in early Rockwell fingerprint patents such as this one.

Incidentally, there’s another account from Richard Reneau that takes the story farther back, into the 1960s:

The FBI then narrowed the choices to digital imaging developments. In 1967, contracts were awarded to Coronell Aeronautical Laboratories Inc. (which became Calspan Corp. and later, wasn’t heard from much) and Autonetics Group of Rockwell International Corp. (which was sold to Dalarue of London, sold to a management group, sold to Motorola, sold to Morpho) for engineering. Significant results were obtained by 1969 and further developments proceeded (development costs from 1971-1977 were a mere $21,535,700, by current spending standards a real bargain).

There’s a lot of detail in the account, including this observation (timely because “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez recently passed away):

What is very interesting to note from the old guy’s perspective is that much of the early “sales” of the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) centered around “hits” made from searching latent prints in the system. AFIS capabilities as a crime fighting tool quickly overshadowed its speed and accuracy of the ten-print searching and identification abilities. The latent print function of the “Big four” quickly captured the public’s attention on the news. For example, one of these political sausages was the direct result of the automated systems “hit” of the “Night stalker” case. It was all about getting your own stand alone system at that point.

A central discussion I recall at the time was whether we should let the crime fighting capability take the lead — won’t wide-spread publicity cause the criminal to stop leaving prints at the crime scenes. Since the release of fingerprint information hasn’t stopped the criminal in the last 100 years, it probably won’t stop now, we opined. How right we were –backlogs are still growing.

A literal “time shift” – a celebrity meeting that saved a life

Many things happen because of chance, and it was just chance that Lara Lundstrom Clarke met a celebrity one morning – one Gwyneth Paltrow.

Both had been exercising that morning, Paltrow taking in an early yoga class, Clarke rollerblading along the Hudson. While Clarke was crossing in the middle of a West Village street in New York, Paltrow was driving in her silver Mercedes SUV. Suddenly, Clarke looked over and realized who was in the SUV. Clarke and Paltrow each stopped and the two of them exchanged greetings. This small delay made Clarke miss her train….

This happens often – something is both good and bad. The good thing for Clarke was that she met Paltrow. The bad thing was that the meeting caused her to miss her train…

…to her job…

…at the World Trade Center…

…on September 11, 2001.

She caught the next train and stepped off the platform just in time to see the first plane fly into Tower One.

This is just one of the stories of people who, for various reasons, avoided being killed on September 11.

Secret narrative science

Remember when I was looking for updated information on Narrative Science, the company that is working to automate the production of news articles?

Well, Narrative Science has hit the news again, but not because of anything that the company itself has done.

Companies don’t only make money by generating revenue. Companies also make money by getting investments, either privately (for example, when FriendFeed was acquired by Facebook) or publicly (when Facebook itself went public).

And Narrative Science has just received an investment of an unknown amount. Yeah, the funding amount is secret, so we don’t know if Narrative Science raised one dollar or one billion dollars. But we do know who made the investment – In-Q-Tel.

Now most of us are unfamiliar with In-Q-Tel, but the company is an active investor. And its investments are made on behalf of another entity – an entity which, when I lived in the Washington DC area in the early 1970s, was identified on local maps as the “Bureau of Public Roads.” Even today I have a conditioned reluctance to name the entity, but I will reveal the entity’s initials – CIA.

The investment makes sense to Peter Kafka of All Things D:

Those guys have a lot of data, and it would probably be helpful to have some of that sorted into sentences and summaries. It would be great to show you an example of that work, but obviously that’s not gonna happen.

Perhaps we will see some of this. The CIA – OK, I guess I can say “Central Intelligence Agency” in the 21st century – has become a lot more open about certain things. Imagine, for example, a version of The World Factbook that is edited in real-time.

Now imagine someone using Internet pages to introduce spurious information into a Narrative Science-updated World Factbook. For example, if I were a hacker and successfully spoofed https://www.gov.uk/, I could arrange things so that the CIA’s World Factbook would authoritatively report that Scary Spice had been named Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

This could be interesting.

Internal control, B.C. version

As part of his day job, Jim Ulvog advises nonprofits on financial issues, including the need for financial controls to minimize the chance of fraudulent activity (see “The Tragedy of Fraud” post series. In a recent post in his blog Attestation Update, one of Ulvog’s former colleagues brought a 5th century text to Ulvog’s attention. According to the colleague, the quote below is taken from the Fourth Ecumenical Council in 449 A.D.:

As we have learned, in some churches, the bishops administer the material goods of the church without a treasurer; it has seemed right and proper that every church with a bishop should also have a treasurer taken from the clergy who will administer the church’s goods with advice of his own bishop. In this way the administration of the church will not be without checks and balances, the goods of the church will not be dissipated, and the priesthood will be free from all suspicion.

Let’s face it – no matter what type of organization you’re talking about, money is a temptation, and it’s wise to impose some type of control over the handling of money.

Not all nonprofits feel this way, unfortunately. In fact, according to a 2007 Christianity Today article, an entire “we’re not a denomination” denomination holds to a different practice, and cites Biblical authority for justification of its view:

“We take the model from the work that God established in the nation of Israel,” [Chuck] Smith says. “Moses was the leader appointed by God. He took 70 men, and they assisted Moses in overseeing the mundane types of issues that developed within the nation. There was the priesthood under Aaron.” Similarly, he says, “we have assistant pastors, and they look to me as the senior pastor. I’m responsible to the Lord. We have a board of elders. We go over the budget. The people recognize that God has called me to be the leader of this fellowship. We are not led by a board of elders. I feel my primary responsibility is to the Lord. And one day I’m going to answer to him, not to a board of elders.”

Critics say this “Moses model” produces pastors who refuse to let their authority be challenged. Such pastors often resist accountability measures such as financial audits and providing detailed financial statements. Some curious Calvary Chapel attendees, who have sought financial information from their churches, say they were ostracized.

Did the twelve tribes have lax financial controls during their years in the desert? Well, according to this abstract, they certainly established financial controls by the time they settled down:

Abstract: We examine the Hebrew Talmud’s account of internal controls in the ancient Jerusalem Temple (c.823 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.) This far-reaching enterprise involved an extensive system of sacrificial offerings, management of three annual pilgrimages, a court system and maintenance of a priestly class. We outline the annual process of collecting half-shekel and other donations, withdrawals from the Temple treasury and the sale of libations. The Talmud describes numerous internal controls: donations were segregated according to their specific purposes and donation chests were shaped with small openings to prevent theft. When making withdrawals from the Temple treasury, the priest-treasurer was required to wear specific clothing to prevent misappropriation of assets. The Treasury chamber itself had seven seals, requiring the presence of seven different individuals, including the king, in order to open it. The process of selling libations and meal offerings required purchasing and then redeeming different tickets, which were specifically marked to prevent fraud. In explaining the reasoning for this tight system of internal controls, the Talmud reveals that an individual “shall be guiltless before G-D and before Israel” [Numbers 32: 22], so that a sound system of internal controls prevents both theft and any suspicion of theft, thus establishing the fiscal credibility of the Temple institution in the eyes of its congregants. Such an approach indicates that accounting did not represent a profane, secular vocation at odds with the Temple’s mission. To the contrary, a system of accountability formed integral steps in the Temple’s ritual processes.

Now for me personally the Talmud is not an authoritative religious book that governs my life, but it appears that there is some wisdom in its financial control system.

California Assembly Bill 642 and newspapers of general circulation

Early Saturday afternoon, I was sitting in Goodwin’s Organic Foods & Drinks in Riverside, California, sipping on a carrot apple juice. However, I wasn’t planning a sit-in to protest genetically modified snail darters. Instead, I was reading a newspaper.

Now perhaps I need to explain that term to younger readers. You see, a “newspaper” is just like it sounds – a collection of news stories printed on paper. It’s kind of like having an AOL publication such as the Huffington Post, but instead of looking at it on a computer as normal people do, you actually hold pieces of paper – sometimes very large pieces of paper – in your hand to read the news. In fact, some major news web sites, including famous websites such as the New York Times, actually started out as newspapers!

(Someday I’ll post the story of my years as a “paper boy.”)

Oh, and because it prints on paper, the newspaper copy that you have may not have the latest news. In fact, I was looking at a newspaper from Friday, the day before – which is probably why it was left lying around.

So what was in Friday’s paper – in this case, the local Riverside Press-Enterprise? Well, I saw a few stock quotes from Thursday – not a lot of them. And I saw an account of the Heat-Pacers basketball game from Thursday night. And I also saw an ad, placed by the paper itself, regarding California Assembly Bill AB 642.

If you haven’t heard of AB 642, it is a legislative attempt to change the definition of a “newspaper of general circulation.” Why is this definition so important? Because in California, as in many other jurisdictions, a newspaper of general circulation is the only type of newspaper that is authorized to publish official notices – fictitious business name statements, petitions to change names, notices of auctions of unclaimed property, and the like. So if you happen to be a newspaper of general circulation, you can run these ads – and charge money for them, which provides a nice revenue stream.

But what if the definition of “newspaper of general circulation” changes? Well, that’s what AB 642 proposes to do. Here’s part of the legislative counsel’s summary of the bill:

AB 642, as introduced, Rendon. Publication: newspaper of general circulation: Internet Web site.

Existing law requires that various types of notices are provided in a newspaper of general circulation. Existing law requires a newspaper of general circulation to meet certain criteria, including, among others, that it be published and have a substantial distribution to paid subscribers in the city, district, or judicial district in which it is seeking adjudication.

This bill would provide that a newspaper that is available on an Internet Web site may also qualify as a newspaper of general circulation, provided that newspaper meets certain criteria.

Now this bill, if passed, means that current newspapers of general circulation, such as the Riverside Press-Enterprise, would have to compete with Internet-only publications, such as the Lake Elsinore-Wildomar Patch, an online-only news source in the Press-Enterprise’s territory.

As I mentioned, the newspaper that I was reading had some comments about AB 642. You can guess how the Press-Enterprise feels about it.

Although I couldn’t find the Press-Enterprise’s ad online, I did find similar sentiments from another newspaper publisher, Brian Hews. In a March 15 piece entitled AOL, Patch Declare War on Newspapers in California, writer Randy Economy quotes from Hews:

“AB 642 requires no brick-and-mortar presence, no business office, and therefore, likely no local publisher, editors, reporters, local ad staff, production and circulation staff. A single regional editor aggregating content from the worldwide web and rewriting news credited at great expense by real newspapers would qualify,” Hews said….

“AB 642 would allow the adjudication of a petri dish,” Hews said. “This will kill some great local newspapers.”…

“Internet-only publications, especially The Patch are undependable, have no permanency, are subject to constant change and susceptible to technology failure. Internet connections fall, server’s crash, links die and websites are hacked all the time,” Hews said.

But not everyone is worried about the crashing of “server’s.” To some, the anti-competitive stance of the current newspapers of general circulation is the last gasp of a dying industry. In a letter to the editor of the Press-Enterprise, Dana Sutton was unimpressed with the Press-Enterprise’s arguments:

In response to your large advertisement March 27 that urged opposition to AB 642, I urge California legislators to support the bill….

What we have is a yelp of pain coming from a moribund industry. Spokesmen for the whale oil industry no doubt issued similar howls when electricity came along. But, of course, technological progress always creates losers as well as winners. The Legislature has no business protecting such victims from the natural and inevitable consequences of obsolescence.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I found all of these quotes on the Internet. But on the other hand, Sutton took the time to pen (I mean type) a missive to this generation’s whale oil salesmen.

This whole episode, including the behind-the-scenes jockeying by competing business interests, is merely another illustration that technology itself is easy to change. Heck, technology would permit THIS blog to publish official notices – something that would strike fear in the hearts of the Press-Enterprise and AOL alike. It’s the business rules that are tough to alter.

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