Swans, Pigs, and the CIA: An Unlikely Radio Story

Shortwave radio is boring, right? Maybe not. You never know what intrigue and excitement you might intercept. We recently covered secret number stations, and while no one knows for sure exactly what their purpose is, it is almost surely involving cloaks and daggers. However, there’s been some more obvious espionage radio, like Radio Swan.

The swan didn’t refer to the animal, but rather an island just off of Honduras that, until 1972, was disputed between Honduras and the United States. The island got its name–reportedly–because it was used as a base for a pirate named Swan in the 17th century. This island also had a long history of use by the United States government. The Department of Agriculture used it to quarantine imported beef and a variety of government departments had weather stations there.

You might wonder why the United States claimed a tiny island so far away from its shores. It turns out, it was all about guano. The Guano Islands Act of 1856 allowed the president to designate otherwise unclaimed territory as part of the United States for the purpose of collecting guano which, in addition to being bird excrement, is also important because it contains phosphates used in fertilizer and gunpowder. (Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.)

However, the most famous occupant of Swan Island was Radio Swan which broadcast on the AM radio band and shortwave. The station was owned by the Gibraltar Steamship Company with offices on Fifth Avenue in New York. Oddly, though, the company didn’t actually have any steamships. What it did have was some radio transmitters that had been used by Radio Free Europe and brought to the island by the United States Navy. Did I mention that the Gibraltar Steamship Company was actually a front for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)?

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No Pascal, not a SNOBOL’s chance. Go Forth!

My article on Fortran, This is Not Your Father’s FORTRAN, brought back a lot of memories about the language. It also reminded me of other languages from my time at college and shortly thereafter, say pre-1978.

At that time there were the three original languages – FORTRAN, LISP, and COBOL. These originals are still used although none make the lists of popular languages. I never did any COBOL but did some work with Pascal, Forth, and SNOBOL which are from that era. Of those, SNOBOL quickly faded but the others are still around. SNOBOL was a text processing language that basically lost out to AWK, PERL, and regular expressions. Given how cryptic regular expressions are it’s amazing another language from that time, APL – A Programming Language, didn’t survive. APL was referred to as a ‘write only language’ because it was often easier to simply rewrite a piece of code than to debug it.

Another language deserving mention is Algol, if only because Pascal is a descendant, along with many modern languages. Algol was always more popular outside the US, probably because everyone there stuck with FORTRAN.

Back then certain books held iconic status, much like [McCracken’s] black FORTRAN IV. In the early 70s, mentioning [Nicolas Wirth] or the yellow book brought to mind Pascal. Similarly, [Griswold, (R. E.)] was SNOBOL and a green book. For some reason, [Griswold’s] two co-authors never were mentioned, unlike the later duo of [Kernighan] & [Ritchie] with their white “The C Programming Language”. Seeing that book years later on an Italian coworker’s bookshelf translated to Italian gave my mind a minor boggling. Join me for a walk down the memory lane that got our programming world to where it is today.

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The Eloquence of the Barcode

Beep. You hear it every time you buy a product in a retail store. The checkout person slides your purchase over a scanner embedded in their checkout stand, or shoots it with a handheld scanner. The familiar series of bars and spaces on the label is digitized, decoded to digits, and then used as a query to a database of every product that particular store sells. It happens so often that we take it for granted. Modern barcodes have been around for 41 years now. The first product purchased with a barcode was a 10 pack of Juicy Fruit gum, scanned on June 26, 1974 at Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio. The code scanned that day was UPC-A, the same barcode used today on just about every retail product you can buy.

The history of the barcode is not as cut and dry as one would think. More than one group has been credited with inventing the technology. How does one encode data on a machine, store it on a physical media, then read it at some later date? Punch cards and paper tape have been doing that for centuries. The problem was storing that data without cutting holes in the carrier. The overall issue was common enough that efforts were launched in several different industries.

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This Is Not Your Father’s FORTRAN

I learned to program FORTRAN IV in the spring of 1968 while working as an engineering technician in water resources. One of the engineers knew of my interest in computers and asked if I would like to learn FORTRAN. He needed to calculate the biological oxygen demand in streams but didn’t have any interest in programming. I jumped at the chance.

415I2ZfVyqL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_This was the days of big iron when the term computer meant a room full of heavily air-conditioned equipment. The State University of New York at Buffalo had an IBM 704 but they soon upgraded to a CDC 6400. To help pay for it they were inviting people to attend a seminar on FORTRAN so they could use the system. My job was with a small State of NY office and getting approval for me to attend was surprisingly easy.

Off I went for 6 weeks of training on one night a week. I still have my black “A Guide to Fortran IV Programming” by [Daniel McCracken]. For years, this was the FORTRAN bible, commonly referred to as just “McCracken”.

The programming went well and somewhere out there is a very old paper with a reference to the results it generated about the Chadakoin River flowing through Jamestown, NY.

This is FORTRAN’s strength – scientific calculations. It’s name says it: FORmula TRANslation.

Origins and FORTRAN IV

[John W. Backus] suggested to IBM a language to replace assembly language. Development began in 1953 for the IBM 704 and the project reached fruition in 1957. Not only was it the first general purpose high-level language, just beating out COBOL and LISP, but its compiler optimized the code since it needed to compete head-on with assembly language. It was the C compiler of its day in that regard.

That was not the only reason it attained success. Reducing the number of punched cards needed for a program by a factor of 20 over assembly helped considerably.

In those days, you needed to use a key punch to create a deck of punch cards. To be really good you had to know how to create a programming card that would let you skip through the fields on a FORTRAN card, or how to edit a card by duplicating it and holding one of the cards in place while you typed in new characters. Because of my fascination with computers I’d taken a key punching and automation machines class in high school so I was all set.

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Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI

We all know what Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) is nowadays. It’s almost impossible to get away from it in any television show or movie. It’s gotten so good, that sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between the real world and the computer generated world when they are mixed together on-screen. Of course, it wasn’t always like this. This 1982 clip from BBC’s Tomorrow’s World shows what the wonders of CGI were capable of in a simpler time.

In the earliest days of CGI, digital computers weren’t even really a thing. [John Whitney] was an American animator and is widely considered to be the father of computer animation. In the 1940’s, he and his brother [James] started to experiment with what they called “abstract animation”. They pieced together old analog computers and servos to make their own devices that were capable of controlling the motion of lights and lit objects. While this process may be a far cry from the CGI of today, it is still animation performed by a computer. One of [Whitney’s] best known works is the opening title sequence to [Alfred Hitchcock’s] 1958 film, Vertigo.

Later, in 1973, Westworld become the very first feature film to feature CGI. The film was a science fiction western-thriller about amusement park robots that become evil. The studio wanted footage of the robot’s “computer vision” but they would need an expert to get the job done right. They ultimately hired [John Whitney’s] son, [John Whitney Jr] to lead the project. The process first required color separating each frame of the 70mm film because [John Jr] did not have a color scanner. He then used a computer to digitally modify each image to create what we would now recognize as a “pixelated” effect. The computer processing took approximately eight hours for every ten seconds of footage. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI”

The Original Seven (Eight?) Segment Display

The seven-segment LED display is ubiquitous. But how old do you think the fundamental idea behind it is? You nixie tube fans will be thinking of the vacuum-tube era, but a reader sent us this patent filed in 1908 where [Frank W. Wood] builds a numeric display with plain-vanilla light bulbs, slots cut in wood, and lots of wires.

The OCR on the patent is poorly done — you’re going to want to download the PDF and read it locally. But as it states in the patent, “Referring again to Fig. 1, the novel arrangement of the lamp compartments will be readily understood.”

Technically it’s not a seven-segment display at all. [F.W. Wood] designed these really nice-looking “4”s with the diagonal heads, and so he needed eight segments per digit. But the basic idea shines through, if you pardon the pun.

The other figures demonstrate the machine that’s used to send the signals to light up the lights. It’s a rotating drum with the right contacts on the bottom side to make connections and turn on the right lights at the other end. Low tech, but it’s what was available at the time.

We’re stoked that we’re not responsible for wiring this thing up, and we’re a bit awed by how old the spirit behind one of our most ubiquitous technologies is.

Thanks to [mario59] for the nostalgic tip!

UTF-8 – “The most elegant hack”

While it may not look like much, the image above is a piece of the original email where [Ken Thompson] described what would become the implementation of UTF-8. At the dawn of the computer age in America, when we were still using teletype machines, encoding the English language was all we worried about. Programmers standardized on the ASCII character set, but there was no room for all of the characters used in other languages. To enable real-time worldwide communication, we needed something better. There were many proposals, but the one submitted by [Ken Thompson] and [Rob ‘Commander’ Pike] was the one accepted, quite possibly because of what a beautiful hack it is.

[Tom Scott] did an excellent job of describing the UTF-8. Why he chose to explain it in the middle of a busy cafe is beyond us, but his enthusiasm was definitely up to the task. In the video (which is embedded after the break) he quickly shows the simplicity and genius of ASCII. He then explains the challenge of supporting so many character sets, and why UTF-8 made so much sense.

We considered making this a Retrotechtacular, but the consensus is that understanding how UTF-8 came about is useful for modern hackers and coders. If you’re interested in learning more, there are tons of links in this Reddit post, including a link to the original email.

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