The origins of "bug"

One of the commonly believed origins of the term “bug” (as used in the software context) is the anecdote of a dead moth being causing the malfunction of the Mark II computer in Harvard in 1947. Well, it turns out that the term bug is much older and predates the computer industry by a pretty big margin. I found this out while reading Robert Cringely’s weekly post on Apple’s HD strategy (it is an interesting article by the way) where he’s mentioned the incident and the possible origins as a side note:

It turns out that “bug” was a common term for hardware glitches and dates back to the 19th century and possibly before. Edison used the term in a letter he wrote in 1878. This is no earthshaking news, of course, but simply reminds me how self-centered we are as an industry and there really isn’t much that’s truly new.

Wikipedia also mentions more or less the same thing in the etymology section for software bugs:

While it is certain that the Mark II operators did not coin the term “bug”, it has been suggested that they did coin the related term, “debug“. Even this is unlikely, since the Oxford English Dictionary entry for “debug” contains a use of “debugging” in the context of airplane engines in 1945 (see the debugging article for more).

So that clears up some word origins I guess, but the computer industry can take consolation in finding the first “real” bug :-).

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IBM and Feb 14

Just discovered this bit from the Geekend blog:

Feb. 14, 1924, IBM is founded.

Also checked wikipedia:

On February 14, 1924, CTR changed its name to International Business Machines Corporation. At the helm during this period, Watson played a central role in establishing what would become the IBM organization and culture.

Computer resistant game

I was going through the wikipedia page for Deep Blue (which I had followed through one of my feeds), and came across the game Arimaa (official site). The game was apparently developed by Omar Syed following Garry Kasparov’s defeat at the hands of Deep Blue. The game layout is quite similar to chess, and is played on an 8×8 board, but with different looking pieces, and different rules and objectives. There is also a wikibook for the game, plus a downloadable program.

Omar Syed designed Arimaa as a game which would be difficult for computers to play well, and there is a prize (valid upto 2020) for the first computer program which defeats a top ranked human player. The results so far have been quite convincingly in the favour of human players so far (2004-2007), with even low ranked players dominating the computer challenger.

One of the reasons behind this could be that not too many challengers are lining up. Another reason is likely to be the usual brute force approach used in chess programs does not work too well in this game due to its design.

So, for now we can easily say machine smart, but humans smarter.

The real story behind the space pen

The story of NASA spending millions of dollars to create a pen that worked in space for their astronauts, while the Russians just opted to use pencils, is often cited as a KISS example. However, it turns out that it’s just that – a story, and not the reality.

I first came across the actual story behind the space pen in the Geek Trivia article of TechRepublic. Apparently, both the Americans and Russians opted to use pencils initially, but turned out to have several problems due to the tips breaking off, and their flammable nature (in the high oxygen environment). NASA did opt to use mechanical pencils initially, but they were pretty expensive (almost $130).

In the end both parties started using the space pen developed by the Fisher Pen company which was a lot cheaper ($2.39 after a bulk discount). The research behind development of the pen did require around a million dollars, and patented in 1965. But, this was done by the pen company and not NASA. Also, if you are interested in buying one, it costs around $50.

There is also a detailed Scientific American article on the space pen which appeared last December.

Easiest way to type backwards

I am not sure whether this serves any useful purpose other than having some fun, but there is an easy way to type backwards. The method occurred to me during an IM session with one of my friends. The technique is quite simple – spell your words as usual, but type one character at a time, and follow up each character with the back arrow. The method may be slow, but you don’t have to spell out the words backwards before typing.

.tnemmoc a evael dna yrt ti evig ,oS 🙂

Skycars and the future of cars

I came across a link to Moller Skycars through one of my feeds. This got me looking a bit more into where we have reached with the concept of flying cars. The Moller Skycar (on wikipedia) has apparently been around for quite some time, and has also been tested out (but tethered runs for safety). The M400 model which is being planned for general usage is basically a 4-seater VTOL (Vertical Take-off and Landing) vehicle capable of speeds of upto 375 mph, and runs on ethanol. It’s expected to be priced around $1 million.

There are also a few videos on the Moller site on the flying cars, plus one on youtube of the cars test run (or flight). There’s also quite a bit of information on the wikipedia page on flying cars (with one of the earliest models dating back to 1937). Going by the information I’ve seen, the flying car can be expected to be launched by the end of this decade.

However, one of the big questions remaining is the one regarding the energy source for these vehicles – some form of petroleum/ethanol, which is not exactly environment friendly. This is also one of the main sections in the future of cars page on wikipedia, with alternatives ranging from hybrids to hydrogen powered vehicles.

Omni-directional driving

I came across an interesting puzzle on the Humanized site through one of my feeds. The puzzle was to design a car that is not forward/reverse modal (basically do away with the gear shift, which creates multiple modes for the accelerator). There were quite a few interesting and innovative solutions, with suggestions ranging from using joysticks to providing separate buttons/pedals for the reverse functionality.

While going through this puzzle and the answers, I came across the Airtrax site, which designs omni-directional vehicles, i.e., vehicles which can move in any direction. They have a small video on the front page demonstrating the vehicle capabilities, and also a page with some information on the omni-directional drive system.

404 errors and server complaints

I was going through one of the Geek Trivia articles on TechRepublic on the origin of the 404 – page not found error (which everyone would have encountered at some point of time), and it contained a link to a very interesting and humorous page. The page is something like a page not found error from the “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” world, with the server giving you a nice lecture. Wonder what it would be like if we had the server responding in a similar fashion for all the errors that we encounter on the web.

Information overload and Adhocracy

I was checking out the page on “information overload” on wikipedia, which is one of the major hindrances to quick decision making and quite common in the current information age. The term was apparently coined by Alvin Toffler in his book “Future Shock“. So, I also looked up the page on this book and found another interesting term “Adhocracy” which was also popularized by Alvin Toffler. As per the page, adhocracy is the opposite of bureaucracy and the seems to be quite relevant for innovative organizations. The basic idea is behind adhocracy is to have a dynamism and flexibility to tackling different situations which is absent from bureaucracy.