The passing away of John Backus — leader of the team that invented the Fortran programming language — has been making the rounds yesterday and today. I didn’t recognize the name immediately, but it’s been interesting reading up on the history of Fortran and how it was created:
Mr. Backus, colleagues said, managed the research team with a light hand. The hours were long but informal. Snowball fights relieved lengthy days of work in winter. I.B.M. had a system of rigid yearly performance reviews, which Mr. Backus deemed ill-suited for his programmers, so he ignored it. “We were the hackers of those days,” Richard Goldberg, a member of the Fortran team, recalled in an interview in 2000.
Fortran was the second language I learned (after Basic of course). If I recall correctly, we actually did a bit of punch card programming in high school. In college, the first programming class for engineering students used Fortran (this was in 1984). A year or two later, the school switched to Pascal for that course. (I wonder what they’re using now?)
In my first job after graduating, I worked for a couple years on a signal processing system written in…Fortran! It was pretty cool actually, and fast (for the time, I guess).
The Wikipedia entry for Fortran gives a good overview of the history of the language and its use today. It sounds like a lot of high-end calculations and problem solving are still using it today, 50 years after it was created.
The Computer History Museum Software Preservation Group has a lot of documentation and other artifacts on their History of Fortran page. For example, you can read a PDF that includes the source code (written in IBM 704 assembler) for the first Fortran compiler. I recommend watching the 25th anniversary video which interviewed John and most of the original team members.
I know there’s no shortage of bad or weird error dialogs for software these days, but I’m still surprised when I encounter one in real life. Tonight I had to use my daughter’s HP Photosmart printer on our main Windows PC, so we dutifully installed the CD first to pick up all the appropriate drivers. Sure enough, about half way through a maze of several different installation wizards, this beauty showed up, trying to warn us of “issues blocking installation”. Luckily, it seemed to be a red herring, because clicking Continue let the wizard(s) finish, then we were up and running!
Amazon’s new web services have been gathering a lot of momentum recently, in particular the Simple Storage Service (S3). I can wrap my head around S3 pretty easily and there’s no shortage of the canonical example of “remote backups“. For me, the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) was a bit more puzzling and I didn’t really understand what it would be used for.
That all changed now that I listed to a recent Technometria episode on IT Conversations with Jeff Barr and Doug Kaye. This is a great show which includes Jeff reviewing the Amazon web services and Doug explaining how the new GigaVox Audio Lite publishing system makes extensive use of those services. Definitely worth a listen if you want to understand what’s possible here.
I’m so used to HTML newsletters being useless without images enabled, I was pleasantly surprised today to receive the latest from Bookpool. What’s different here? No images, no scripts, no web beacons, and instantly viewable in my email client! They do have tracking codes embedded in the outgoing links, but they’re written in a safe way that doesn’t trigger Thunderbird’s phishing filters.
Bookpool has created a clean design that relies online on styling contained in the message itself. I’d love to see more newsletters like this, but I suppose it would be hard for the Brand Police to give up their properly-formatted company logos.
(By the way, Bookpool is an excellent source for technical books if you haven’t tried them yet.)