Hackaday Podcast 064: The COBOL Cabal, The Demoscene Bytes, And The BTLE Cure

Hackaday editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys pan for gold in a week packed with technological treasure. The big news is Apple/Google are working on contact tracing using BTLE. From adoption, to privacy, to efficacy, there’s a lot to unpack here and many of the details have yet to take shape. Of course the episode also overflows with great hacks like broken-inductor bike chain sensors, parabolic basketball backboards, bizarre hose clamp tools, iron-on eTextile trials, and hot AM radio towers. We finish up discussing the greatest typing device that wasn’t, and the coming and going of the COBOL crisis.

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

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COBOL Isn’t The Issue: A Misinterpreted Crisis

Is history doomed to repeat itself? Or rather, is there really any doubt that it isn’t, considering recent events that made the news? I am of course talking about New Jersey’s call for COBOL programmers to fix their ancient unemployment system, collapsing under the application spikes caused by the COVID-19 lockdown. Soon after, other states joined in, and it becomes painfully apparent that we have learned absolutely nothing from Y2K: we still rely on the same old antiques running our infrastructure, and we still think people want to voluntarily write COBOL.

Or maybe they do? Following the calls for aid, things went strangely intense. IBM announced to offer free COBOL trainings and launched a forum where programmers can plug their skills and availability. The Open Mainframe Project’s COBOL programming course suddenly tops the list of trending GitHub projects, and Google Trends shows a massive peak for COBOL as well. COBOL is seemingly on its way to be one of the hottest languages of 2020, and it feels like it’s only a matter of time until we see some MicroCOBOL running on a Teensy.

However, the unemployment systems in question are unfortunately only a tiny selection of systems relying on decades old software, written in a language that went out of fashion a long time ago, which makes it difficult to find programmers in today’s times. Why is that?

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Tony Brooker And Autocode – The First High-level Language

The field of computer science has undeniably changed the world for virtually every single person by now. Certainly for you as Hackaday reader, but also for everyone around you, whether they’re working in the field themselves, or are simply enjoying the fruits of convenience it bears. What was once a highly specialized niche field for a few chosen people has since grown into a discipline that not only created one of the biggest industry in modern times, but also revolutionized every other industry, some a few times over.

The fascinating part about all this is the relatively short time span it took to get here, and with that the privilege to live in an era where some of the pioneers and innovators, the proverbial giants whose shoulders every one of us is standing on, are still among us. Sadly, one of them, [Tony Brooker], a pioneer of the early programming language concept known as Autocode, passed away in November. Reaching the remarkable age of 94, the truly sad part however is that this might be the first time you hear his name, and there’s a fair chance you never heard of Autocode either.

But Autocode was probably the first high-level computer language, and as such played a fundamental role in the development of whatever you’re coding in today. So to honor the memory of [Tony Brooker], let’s remember the work he did with Autocode, and the leap in computer science history that it represented.

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Blowing The Dust Off Of An IBM AS/400 Server

If you’ve never seen an IBM AS/400 machine, don’t feel bad. Most people haven’t. Introduced in 1988 as a mid-range server line, it used a unique object-based operating system and was geared specifically towards business and enterprise customers. Unless you’re a particularly big fan of COBOL you probably won’t have much use for one today, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth playing around with if the opportunity presents itself.

So when a local IT company went belly up and was selling their old hardware, including a late 90’s era IBM AS/400e Series, [Rik te Winkel] jumped at the chance to take this unique piece of computing history home. He knew it was something of a risk, as maintenance and repair tasks for these machines were intended to be done by IBM certified technicians rather than the DIYer, leaving little in the way of documentation or even replacement parts. But in the end it worked out, and best of all, he documented the successful process of dragging this 90’s behemoth into the blinding light of the twenty-first century for all the world to see.

After getting the machine home and sitting through its thirty minute boot process, [Rik] was relieved to see the code 01 B N pop on the server’s display. This meant the system passed all the internal checks and was ready to go, he just had to figure out how to talk to the thing. Built to be a pure server, the machine didn’t offer any video output so he’d have to log into it over the network.

[Rik] noted that there was no new DHCP entry in his router for the server, but of course that was hardly surprising as the machine would have certainly had a static IP when it was in use. So he shut the server down, plugged it directly into his laptop’s Ethernet port, and watched the output of Wireshark as it went through its arduous boot sequence. Eventually he started to pick up packets coming from the IP address 10.10.10.9, and he had his target.

There are a few clients out there that allow you to remotely log into an AS/400, so he downloaded one and pointed it to the server’s IP. He was surprised to see the operating system was apparently in Dutch, but at least he was in. He tried a few common usernames and passwords, helped along by the fact that this OS from a somewhat more innocent era will actually tell you if you have the username right or wrong, and eventually managed to hack the Gibson with the classic admin/admin combo.

So he was in, but now what? [Rik] decided that he couldn’t truly call this machine bested until he could pull up the Hackaday Retro Edition, so he started work on writing a program to let him pull down the page directly on the AS/400 in IBM’s proprietary Report Program Generator (RPG) programming language. You know, as one does. He didn’t quite feel up to writing a whole HTML parser, but he got as far as generating a HTTP GET request, downloading the page’s source, and opening it up as a local file. That’s good enough for us.

Our very own [Al Williams] documented his adventures poking around an Internet-connected AS/400 machine, which might serve as a helpful primer if you ever find one of these delightfully oddball computers kicking around the local recycling center.

Disrupting The Computer Industry Before It Existed: Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

The feature of being easier to write than assembly is often seen as the biggest advantage of high-level programming languages. The other benefit that comes with them is portability. With high-level languages, algorithms can be developed independently from the underlying hardware. This allows software to live on once the hardware becomes obsolete.

The compiler was a concept that was met with resistance when it was first introduced. This was at a time when computers were custom-built machines bearing individual names like ENIAC, UNIVAC and Mark I. A time when the global demand for computers was estimated to be around five units by the CEO of IBM. In this scenario, it took a visionary to foresee a future where the number of computers would outgrow the number of programmers and hardware would evolve so much faster than software that a compiler would make sense. One visionary was [Grace Hopper].

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Hackaday Links: May 29, 2016

Hackaday has a store‽ Yes, it’s true, and we have a Memorial Day sale going on right now. Get a cool robot had t-shirt, a cool clock, or a GoodFET. Spend money. Consume.

Learn COBOL. Seriously, you should learn COBOL. It’s a fact of nature that every computer-minded person will eventually hear that COBOL developers make bank, and you’ll have job security for the rest of your life. Now look at the Hello World for COBOL. Yes, there’s a reason COBOL devs make bank, and they’re still vastly underpaid. [Folkert] figured a way around this problem: he built a Brainfuck to COBOL compiler. Mainframe programming for the rest of us.

[fbustamante] got his hands on an old GP2X Wiz, one of those ARM-based portable media player/emulator things from a few years ago. This is a complete computer, and like the Pandora, it’ll do everything one of those Raspberry Pi laptops can do. The Wiz doesn’t have a keyboard, so [fbustamante] created his own. He etched his own PC, repurposed a keyboard controller from a USB keyboard, and stole the keycaps from an old Sharp digital organizer.

Speaking of portable consoles, [Element18592] built this incredible Nintendo 64 portable. He’s done an XBox 360 laptop and stuffed a Pi into an old brick Game Boy. This N64 mod is great, uses a 3D printed enclosure, and has truly amazing vinyl graphics.

To the surprise of many, [Photonicinduction] is not dead. The drunk brit with a penchant for high voltage electrics and a very, very confused power company is back making videos again. His latest video is a puzzle. It’s a plastic block with a light bulb socket, a UK power outlet, and a switch. Plug in a light bulb, flip the switch, and it turns on. Plug a blender into the outlet, and that turns on too. No wires, so how is he doing it?

Introduced at CES last January, Monoprice – yes, the same place you get HDMI and Ethernet cables from – has released their $200 3D printer. This one is on our radar and there will be a review, but right away the specs are fantastic for a $200 printer. The build area is 120mm³, it has a heated bed, and appears to be not completely locked down like the DaVinci printers were a few years ago.