Weather can have a significant impact on transport and operations of all kinds, especially those at sea or in the air. This makes it a deeply important field of study, particularly in wartime. If you’re at all curious about how this kind of information was gathered and handled in the days before satellites and computer models, this write-up on WWII meteorology is sure to pique your interest.
The main method of learning weather conditions over the oceans is to persuade merchant ships to report their observations regularly. This is true even today, but these days we also have the benefit of things like satellite technology. Back in the mid-1900s there was no such thing, and the outbreak of WWII (including the classification of weather data as secret information due to its value) meant that new solutions were needed.
The aircraft of the Royal Air Force (RAF) were particularly in need of accurate data, and there was little to no understanding of the upper atmosphere at the time. Eventually, aircraft flew regular 10-hour sorties, logging detailed readings that served to provide data about weather conditions across the Atlantic. Readings were logged, encoded with one-time pad (OTP) encryption, then radioed back to base where charts would be created and updated every few hours.
The value of accurate data and precise understanding of conditions and how they could change was grimly illustrated in a disaster called the Night of the Big Wind (March 24-25, 1944). Forecasts predicted winds no stronger than 45 mph, but Allied bombers sent to Berlin were torn apart when they encountered winds in excess of 120 mph, leading to the loss of 72 aircraft.
Anyone who has ever made a living writing code has probably had some version of the following drilled into their head: “Always write your code so the next person can understand it.” Every single coder has then gone on to do exactly the opposite, using cryptic variables and bizarre structures that nobody else could possibly follow. And every single coder has also forgotten the next part of that saying — “Because the next person could be you” — and gone on to curse out an often anonymous predecessor when equally inscrutable code is thrust upon them to maintain. Cognitive dissonance be damned!
It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as programming has existed as a profession. And by 1975, poorly written code was enough of a problem that an outfit called Edutronics put together the animated gem Critical Program Reading: Structuring an Unstructured Program. It’s apparently Part 1 of a larger series on structured programming techniques, and comes to us by way of [Alec Watson], host of Technology Connections on YouTube, by way of his second channel, the delightfully named Technology Connextras.
The film’s three minimally animated characters, each of whom could have been the villain in an episode of Scooby Doo, are tasked by a stern-sounding narrator to analyze a fragment of pseudocode that’s written in a concoction of COBOL, PL/1, and a bunch of other languages. The code is a hot mess, but our heroes muddle through it line by awful line, making it more readable by guessing at more descriptive variable names, adding structured elements, and making logical changes to improve the program’s flow. The example code is highly contrived, to be sure, but the business logic becomes much clearer as our team refactors the code and makes it far more approachable.
For as much as languages have changed since the 1970s, and with all the progress we’ve made in software engineering, the lessons presented in this film are still surprisingly relevant. We loved a lot of the little nuggets dropped along the way, like “Consistency aids understanding,” and “Use symbols in a natural way.” But we will take exception with the statement “Wrong means poor structure” — we’ve written seen plenty of properly structured code that didn’t work worth a damn. We also enjoyed the attempt at socially engineering a less toxic work environment: “Use tact in personal criticisms.” If only they could learn that lesson over at Stack Overflow.
It’s not clear where [Alec] found this 16-mm film — we’d sure like to hear that story — but it’s a beauty and we’re glad he took the time to digitize it. We’re consistently amazed at his ability to make even the most mundane aspects of technology endlessly fascinating, and while this film may be a bit off from his normal fare, it’s still a great find. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Critical Code Reading, 70s Style”→
It is a shame that there are fewer and fewer “nerd stores” around. Fry’s is gone. Radio Shack is gone. But the best ones were always the places that had junk. Silicon valley was great for these places, but they were everywhere. Often, they made their money selling parts to the repair trade, but they had a section for people like us. There’s still one of these stores in the Houston, Texas area. One of the two original Electronic Parts Outlets, or EPO. Walking through there is like a museum of old gear and parts and I am not ashamed to confess I sometimes drive the hour from my house just to wander its aisles, needing to buy absolutely nothing. It was on one of those trips that I spied something I hadn’t noticed before. A Remco Caravelle transmitter/receiver.
Normally, when we pick out something to carry the “Retrotechtacular” banner, it’s a film from the good old days when technology was young and fresh, and filmmakers were paid by one corporate giant or another to produce a film extolling the benefits of their products or services, often with a not-so-subtle “celebrate the march of progress” undertone.
So when we spied this remastered version of The Secret Life of the Electric Light, an episode from [Tim Hunkin]’s fabulous educational The Secret Life of Machines TV series, we didn’t really think it would be good Retrotechtacular fodder. But just watching a few minutes reminded us of why the series was must-see TV back in the 1990s (when it first aired widely here in the States), especially for the budding geek. When viewed with eyes more used to CGI animations and high production values, what [Tim] and his collaborator, the late [Rex Garrod], accomplished with each of these programs is truly astounding. Almost every bit of the material, as well as the delivery, has an off-the-cuff quality to it that belies what must have taken an enormous amount of planning and organization to pull off. [Tim] and [Rex] obviously went to a lot of trouble to make it look like they didn’t go to a lot of trouble, and the result is films that home in on the essentials of technology in a way few programs have ever managed, and none since. And the set-piece at the end of each episode — often meeting its pyrotechnic destruction — always were real crowd-pleasers. They still are.
We have to say the remastered versions of The Secret Life episodes, all of which appear to be posted at [Tim]’s YouTube channel, look just great, and the retrospectives at the end of each episode where he talks about the travails of production are priceless. Also posted are his more recent The Secret Life of Components, which is a treasure trove of practical tips for makers and backyard engineers that’s well worth watching too.
See if you can talk your local school district into buying a computer that costs about $5,000 and weighs 40 pounds. That was HP’s proposition to schools back in 1968 so really it is more like $35,000 today. The calculator had a CRT display for the RPN stack that you could mirror on a big screen. You could also get a printer or plotter add-on. Pretty hot stuff for the ’60s.
The 1970 videos promoting the HP 9100, posted by the [Computer History Archive Project], shows something we’d think of as a clunky calculator, although by the standards of the day it was a pretty good one with trig functions and a crude programming capability.
We think of the mobile phone — well, what we would call a cell phone — as something fairly modern. Many of us can still remember when using a ham radio phone patch from your parked car would have people staring and murmuring. But it turns out in the late 1940s, Bell Telephone offered Mobile Telephone Service (MTS). It was expensive and didn’t work as well as what we have now, but it did let you make or receive calls from your automobile. After the break, you can see a promotional film about MTS.
The service rolled out in St. Louis in the middle of 1946. The 80-pound radios went in the trunk with a remote handset wired to the dashboard. At first, there were only 3 channels but later Bell added 29 more to keep up with demand. An operator connected incoming and outbound calls and if three other people were using their mobile phones, you were out of luck.
It is easy to find technology success stories: the PC, DVD, and cell phone are all well-documented tales. However, it is a little harder to find the stories behind the things that didn’t quite take off as planned. As the old saying goes, “success has many parents but failure is an orphan.” [Technology Connections] has a great video about RCA’s ill-fated SelectaVision video disc systems. You can see part one of the video below.
RCA started working on the system in the 1960s and had they brought it to market a bit earlier, it might have been a big win. After all, until the VCR most of us watched what was on TV when it was on and had no other options. You couldn’t record things or stream things and f you didn’t make it home in time for Star Trek, you simply missed that episode and hoped you’d get luckier when and if they reran it during the summer. That seems hard to imagine today, but a product like the SelectaVision when it was the only option could have really caught on. The problem was of course, that they waited too late to bring it to market. The video also makes the point that the system contained a few too many technical compromises.