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Posts Tagged ‘UNIVAC

“They laughed at Columbus and they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”*…

The Wright Flier could only fly 200 meters, but there was a clear path to make it better. The Rocket Belt flew for 21 seconds because it used almost a liter of fuel per second, and to fly like this for half a hour you’d need almost two tonnes of fuel, which you can’t carry that on your back. There was no path to make it better without changing the laws of physics. (There’s no hindsight or survivor bias at work here– we knew it in 1962.)

Most technologies that grow up to be important, Benedict Evans observes, start out looking like toys with little or no practical application.

Some of the most important things of the last 100 years or so looked like this. Aircraft, cars, telephones, mobile phones and personal computers were all dismissed as toys. “Well done Mr Wright – you flew over a few sand dunes. Why do we care?”

But on the other hand, plenty of things that looked like useless toys never did become anything more than that. The fact that people laughed at X and X then started working does not tell us that if people now laugh Y or Z, those will work too.

So, we have a pair of equal and opposite fallacies. There is no predictive value in saying ‘that doesn’t work’ or ‘that looks like a toy’, and there is also no predictive value in saying ‘people always say that.’ As [Wolfgang] Pauli put it, statements like this are ‘not even wrong’ – they give no insight into what will happen.

Instead, you have to go one level further. You need a theory for why this will get better, or why it won’t, and for why people will change their behaviour, or for why they won’t…

That’s to say, Evans suggests, you need to be able to envision a roadmap from “toy” to wide, practical use…

These roadmaps can come in steps. It took quite a few steps to get from the [Wright Flier, pictured above left] to something that made ocean liners obsolete, and each of those steps were useful. The PC also came in steps – from hobbyists to spreadsheets to web browsers. The same thing for mobile – we went from expensive analogue phones for a few people to cheap GSM phones for billions of people to smartphones that changed what mobile meant. But there was always a path. The Apple 1, Netscape and the iPhone all looked like impractical toys that ‘couldn’t be used for real work’, but there were obvious roadmaps to change that – not necessarily all the way to the future, but certainly to a useful next step.

Equally, sometimes the roadmap is ‘forget about this for 20 years’. The Newton or the IBM Simon were just too early, as was the first wave of VR in the 80s and 90s. You could have said, deterministically, that Moore’s Law would make VR or pocket computers useful at some point, so there was notionally a roadmap, but the roadmap told you to work on something else. This is different to the Rocket Belt [pictured above right], where there was no foreseeable future development that would make it work…

Much the same sort of questions apply to the other side of the problem – even if this did get very cheap and very good, who would use it? You can’t do a waterfall chart of an engineering roadmap here, but you can again ask questions – what would have to change? Are you proposing a change in human nature, or a different way of expressing it? What’s your theory of why things will change or why they won’t?

The thread through all of this is that we don’t know what will happen, but we do know what could happen – we don’t know the answer, but we can at least ask useful questions. The key challenge to any assertion about what will happen, I think, is to ask ‘well, what would have to change?’ Could this happen, and if it did, would it work? We’re always going to be wrong sometimes, but we can try to be wrong for the right reasons…

A practical approach to technology forecasting: “Not even wrong: predicting tech,” from @benedictevans.

* Carl Sagan


As we ponder prospects, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to J. Presper Eckert; he was born on this date in 1919. An electrical engineer, he co-designed (with John Mauchly) the first general purpose computer, the ENIAC (see here and here) for the U.S. Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory. He and Mauchy went on to found the Eckert–Mauchly Computer Corporation, at which they designed and built the first commercial computer in the U.S., the UNIVAC.

Eckert (standing and gesturing) and Mauchy (at the console), demonstrating the UNIVAC to Walter Cronkite (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 9, 2023 at 1:00 am

51 areas, but not Area 51….


From the folks at Focus Research, a list of “51 Things You Aren’t Allowed to See on Google Maps“:

…for all of the places that Google Maps allows you to see, there are plenty of places that are off-limits. Whether it’s due to government restrictions, personal-privacy lawsuits or mistakes, Google Maps has slapped a “Prohibited” sign on the following 51 places.

1. The White House: Google Maps’ images of the White House show a digitally erased version of the roof in order to obscure the air-defense and security assets that are in place.
2. The U.S. Capitol: The U.S. Capitol has been fuzzy ever since Google Maps launched. Current versions of Google Maps and Google Earth show these sites uncensored, though with old pictures.
3. Dick Cheney’s [now Joe Biden’s] House: The Vice President’s digs at Number One Observatory Circle are obscured through pixelation in Google Earth and Google Maps at the behest of the U.S. government. However, high-resolution photos and aerial surveys of the property are readily available on other Web sites.
4. Soesterberg Air Base, in the Netherlands: This Dutch air-force base and former F-15 base for the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War can’t be seen via Google Maps.
5. PAVE PAWS in Cape Cod, Mass.: PAVE PAWS is the U.S. Air Force Space Command’s radar system for missile warning and space surveillance. There are two other installations besides the one in Cape Cod.
6. Shatt-Al-Arab Hotel in Basra, Iraq: This site was possibly censored after it was reported that terrorists who attacked the British at the hotel used aerial footage displayed by Google Earth to target their attacks.
7. Leeuwarden, Netherlands: This Dutch city is one of the main operating bases of the Royal Netherlands Air Force, part of NATO’s Joint Command Centre and one of three Joint Sub-Regional Commands of Allied Forces Northern Europe. Leeuwarden is also one of two regional headquarters of Allied Command Europe, headed by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
8. Reims Air Base in France: This lone building on Reims Air Base in France is blurred out.
9. Novi Sad: This military base in Serbia is off-limits.
10. Kamp van Zeist: Kamp van Zeist is a former U.S. Air Force base that was temporarily declared sovereign territory of the U.K. in 2000 in order to allow the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial to take place.

See the other 41 here…  and note that, while (understandably) there’s no Street View photography available, Area 51 is on Google Maps.

As we unfold our maps, we might recall that it was on this date that, in 1952, the first UNIVAC, the world’s first commercially-produced electronic digital computer, was delivered to a customer– the Pentagon.  UNIVAC, which stood for Universal Automatic Computer, was developed by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, makers of ENIAC, the first general-purpose electronic digital computer (started by the U.S. Government in 1943 and finished in 1946) for use at Los Alamos and in other defense-related settings.

(In 1951,the U.S. Census Bureau “received” the first Univac, but it was operating at Remington Rand Labs; there was apprehension over disassembling and moving it…  it finally did reach its home– then stayed in service long after it was obsoleted by advancing technology. Indeed, the Census Bureau used it until 1963– for twelve years.)

Eckert (center) demonstrating UNIVAC to Walter Cronkite (right)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 14, 2009 at 12:01 am

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