Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Computer Scientist Remembers Dennis Ritchie

It seems while still in grief we must bear the loss of another true great in the world of computation. To be quite honest, I know little about the man himself. My acquaintance with him, as I suspect thousands like me, is solely with his work. And his work is hard to describe in terms for the layperson. It is easy to use words to describe it technically, he invented the computer programming language called "C".
In reality, it is like saying he invented cement. Few think of or little note the concrete beneath wheels when a great bridge joins two regions, or the concrete in the walls of a skyscraper, or the mortar between the bricks of their house. But truth in form without that crushed lime invention none of those things would be possible. This is the grand scale of the C language. Beautiful in simplicity, and immensely powerful in application, the language consisted only of the following key words.

auto break case char const continue default do double else enum extern float for goto if int long register return short signed sizeof static struct switch typedef union unsigned void volatile while

And with that, Unix was written, the first TCP stacks were designed, and the concrete was poured on which the internet would be both built on, and built out of. It seems something of a paradox that a language so simple in composition would be heralded as one of the most powerful ever written; one of the key features of the language was that, once a function was built it could be easily re-used in other programs, in other applications by simply making an explicit call to include it. And year after year the functions built in C grew and grew, like a self improving tool that starts as a hammer and evolves on its own until it is an entire industrial facility.

C's greatness would later be used as the blue print for C++, C# and Java.

A great inventor of our age is gone, a man behind the machines, a trailblazer in the computer age when it was young.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Computer Scientist Remembers Steve Jobs

Yesterday, computer enthusiasts, professionals, and scholars, lost one of their number; Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer, and co-creator of the revolutionary computer of the same name, now called the Apple I, died. While some have taken to diminish Jobs’ contribution to personal computation as simply refining earlier and existing products, I vehemently disagree.

(Full disclosure, I do own an, Iphone and a little Ipod shuffle, however I have never, nor do I ever anticipate owning a Mac, and if someone gave me a Mac I would likely try and trade it for a PC)

Jobs and Wozniak’s first creation the Apple I, or simply the Apple Computer as it was known at the time, was truly a huge step forward in computing, and the actual start of Personal Computing. For the first time we see the three principal components of a personal computer combined; A keyboard for data input, a video monitor for data output, and a microcomputer processing core. In reality, yes all those components already existed, but never before were they combined in form to create that exact mold which would cast the defining features for personal computation for decades to come. (The earlier microcomputers used a clunky teletype, or sometimes switches and LEDs as their interface; user interfaces that made even the cold command line of DOS look positively userphilic.) Below are some pics of the original Apple I along with an original ad. Originally priced at $666.66 ($500 dealer invoice with 1/3 markup) it was within reach for middle class enthusiasts of the day. The fact that Jobs and Wozniak apparently accidentally chose both $666.66 as their market price, along with Eden’s traditional forbidden fruit as their company name and logo, is strangely prophetic on how the Apple I would mark an epoch in humanity’s journey, where we would once again make a trade of innocence for knowledge.

The Apple I did not last long on the market before the much improved Apple II, the first PC which could display in color, was introduced. Then the market space quickly crowded with the introduction of the Tandy TRS80 and the Commodore PET, and the quiet but earth shattering revolution that was the Apple I would be overshadowed by the commercial success of the Commodore 64 and the IBM PC XT.

To the extent that this ground breaker in personal computing was a simple assembly of pre-existing technologies, I would equate that statement with saying Karl Benz, who made the first gasoline powered carriage, what would later be known as the automobile, accomplished little because gasoline engines and carriages both existed prior to his combining them into personal transportation.

Jobs and Wozniak’s first collaborative work was a substantial shift in computation, for the first time the computer was personal. He continued his work in making computers more personal throughout his career, and much of the way we relate to computers today, regardless of what system you may have, was influenced by Jobs’ vision.

And on that note as I have detailed his 1st symphony, I’ll close by letting Apple detail his 9th.

Requiescat In Pace Steve