Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Bit of Honest Plugola: IBM Infoboom

Once upon a time, torchships would have had a computer rather similar to this one, probably filling the deck below the astrogation deck, and capable of performing thousands of arithmetic operations per second!

Once upon a time, you would have found that performance level awesome. This particular machine is an IBM 701, vintage 1952. The company's first commercial scientific computer, it was known while under development as the 'Defense Calculator.'

Big Blue, of course, is still very much with us, their latest claim to pop culture fame being winning on Jeopardy! (In spite of an embarrassing slip about what country Toronto is in.)

It is also now, indirectly, underwriting Rocketpunk Manifesto. I recently started a work gig writing blog-style tech industry commentary for a forum that IBM sponsors, IBM Infoboom. They partnered with an outfit called Skyword, which in turn has partnered with me.

I have argued here that capitalism is unlikely to bring on the Grand Space Future. But it is capable of supporting some useful space activities, including putting food on our dinner table, which in turn helps keep me blogging. Remarkable how those things work out.

While I have no intention of turning RM into a commercial hustle (fat chance it would pay!), I'm not the least abashed about encouraging you to drop a little free click love on my articles at IBM Infoboom. My work there is aimed primarily at IT managers for small to midsized firms - which probably describes at least some of you. And chances are that if you're geeky enough to be reading this blog, you're geeky enough to have some interest in the tech industry and its trends.

So without further ado, here are links to my first three pieces for IBM Infoboom: (Registration is free, and I'm not even sure you have to register just to read stuff.) Drop by, and feel free to comment!

Amazon's Cloud Crash: Now Come the Reactions

Another Storm Hits the Cloud: Security Breach at Sony

Green Information Technology: Saving Money, Ensuring IT Reliability

As a byproduct of this gig, I'll so be (finally!) setting up an active presence on Twitter and Facebook. If you have any insights, drop them into the comment thread for this post.

The image, from a computer museum website, shows Thomas Watson (Sr) at the desktop console of an IBM 701. Apparently it is only urban legend that he predicted a global market for five such machines; IBM sold about 19 of this model during 1952-55.


Anonymous said...

Congrats on your new gig! Appropo of nothing, it still makes me grin when I watch an old B&W movie and the computer is the size of a room and the robot is smarter than the co-pilot. :)


Konzept said...

I've read that in another Jeopardy match, Watson was surpassed by Congressman Rush D. Holt, Jr. That game was conveniently kept off the airwaves. I wish I could have seen it!

Jim Baerg said...

2 of those 3 links to your articles seem to be set up incorrectly.

Rick said...

Funny how 'computers' and 'robots' were once seen as entirely different technologies.

Welcome to a possibly new commenter? The commenter community has grown to the point where I don't always know if I've seen a user name before! In any case, I'd love to know the story on the Holt match. Anyone have a linkie?

Jim - thanks for the heads up. I don't know what happened, but I tweaked the links and they seem to be working now.

Tony said...

SciFi didn't always get it all that wrong. Forbidden Planet could be interpretted as a future where computing is so ubiquitous that people don't think of computers as separate entities. They're simply necessary components in all types of machines. Think of all the things they did with electronics that we would consider impossible (or at leat impractical) without computers. I'm not saying the filmmakers thought it through in technical detail, but they were on the right track conceptually.

And we're actually already seeing this with embedded systems. People don't think of their smart phones or the electronic fuel injection in their cars as computers, but they have significant digital computing resources built into them.

Also, the planetary computer of Altair IV illustrates something that is actually happening in computing. We might laugh today at a computer occupying 8000 square miles of volume. We might gag at gazillions of "klystron relays". (What, they use microwave amplifiers -- klystrons -- for logic switches!?) But the central idea that more computing power would mean more switches, not better ones, is pretty much accepted today.

Anonymous said...

(SA Phil)

Since Tony mentioned it, I had a thought on that --

A typical car now has 5 computers

The Powertrain Control Module
The ABS/ Traction control Module
The Instrument Cluster Micro
The Nav/Compass/Etc
The Car Radio

The first three are networked together using "Car Area Network" Which isnt ethernet but serves a similar function. This is the communication lines a mechanic connects to when they plug in their diagnostic tool. The Pcm or "car computer" people talk about is actually only the "main computer"

I imagine that a mid-future spacecraft will be the same - 100's of embedded controllers networked together probably with a lot of redundant controls built in.

Milo said...


"Funny how 'computers' and 'robots' were once seen as entirely different technologies."

Robots as a concept have existed, in the form of golems, long before people had any idea of the technologies that could facilitate them.

Konzept said...


Thanks! Here is a good article about Holt beating Watson.

I liked your article about Amazon's crash. I wonder if you could take a look at my post on cloud computing, and give me some feedback.

Rick said...

In The City and the Stars, Clarke describes the Central Computer of Diaspar in a way that we would call networked - when the protagonist goes to the main (immense) underground computer center, he reflects that what he sees might be only the switching system that kept all the city's machines in contact.

The server farm!

Konzept, I'll take a look and comment in the morning!

Tony said...

Doesn't anybody remember the "thin client" computing "revolution", and how that worked out?

Morgrog said...

There are some problems with using microprocessors and modern RAM in an unshielded environment. It is already possible to get solar radiation induced errors, indeed one theoretical hack relies on it. Really advanced computation isn't currently possible outside a heavily shielded environment, or planet with a friendly magnetosphere.

Raises the question whether independent drones might need to be heavier in space than you'd think, to allow for the cooling of the computer - currently we dump most computational heat into air although other mediums can be more efficient. "Target's leaking nitrogen, it should be possible to overload its fire control now."

jollyreaper said...

Space enthusiast decides the only way to get a significant human presence in space is to turn it into a reality show. Whole crew is under the onus of hamming up melodrama for the idiot audience back on Earth. Keep having to invent new social BS to keep the tension amped up. Project gets away from itself and they end up having to make up a deadly asteroid on a collusion course with Earth only they can avert to make it to the end of the season.

jollyreaper said...

Doesn't anybody remember the "thin client" computing "revolution", and how that worked out?

Just another case of "What you have now is garbage!" but you sold it to us "It's garbage! This new shiny thing is the bee's knees! Buy it!" But it'll just be trash by next year. "Shut up and buy!"

Tony said...


"Just another case of 'What you have now is garbage!' but you sold it to us 'It's garbage! This new shiny thing is the bee's knees! Buy it!' But it'll just be trash by next year. 'Shut up and buy!'"

There is some element of that in the push to adopt cloud computing. But the point I was making is that the cloud computing is just another term for a thin client architecture. There were good an sufficient reasons why that never caught on in the 90s. Most of the technical hurdles have obviously been overcome, but there are still business reasons not to jump in head first.

Rick said...

What I think will end up driving cloud adoption is the spread of mobile devices - once you have a desktop, laptop, and smartphone, anything stored locally on one of them is 'in the cloud' with respect to the others.

I don't think the desire for local horsepower or storage is going to go away, however, no matter how hard Steve Jobs pushes it.

But I have to consciously remind myself to back up this blog, which inherently lives in the cloud.

Tony said...

I've said that the "cloud" as a pice of advertising rhetoric, is thin client computing warmed over. And it is. But having said that, use of the internet infrastructure and connected resources is going to be more and more important as we go forward. Online backup, for example, is an bovious application, because it leverages corporate economies of scale to provide its users with space, ease of use, and (in the best services at least) robust protection against disaster. It comes at the cost of security, availability, and reliability issues, but a lot of people see that as a fair trade. People also like being able to read their internet email on their smart phones, and I've certainly gotten good use out of AIM's ability to automatically route chats to your phone when you aren't connected from a laptop or desktop.

So the "cloud" is a tale of two entities -- the marketing fantasy that people try to sell you and the operational reality that we've been using for years, to greater and greater effect.

Rick said...

The perspective from which I'm mainly discussing cloud computing over at Infoboom may not quite fit either of those models, because it's not really about replacing traditional PCs - or any other personal device - with 'thinner clients,' but where and how firms deal with their data center storage.

Having your data stored in your own company's basement feels a lot more comfortable, until the basement floods.

Tony said...


"The perspective from which I'm mainly discussing cloud computing over at Infoboom may not quite fit either of those models, because it's not really about replacing traditional PCs - or any other personal device - with 'thinner clients,' but where and how firms deal with their data center storage.

Having your data stored in your own company's basement feels a lot more comfortable, until the basement floods."

It depends on your requirements. A lot of people have been using virtual services for years to run relatively static web sites or do offsite backup. If you run a high volume e-commerce web site with terabytes of content data -- and you can do that with under ten people, making you a classic small company -- you need the kind of control that you can only get by renting physical data center space and dedicated bandwidth for your own hardware. (I don't know anybody past the startup stage that actually runs proffitable websites out of their own office building.)

Anonymous said...

Having your data stored, automaticaly, in several different locations, would be a powerful attraction...but also a source of concern. A modern day Sword of Damicles.


Konzept said...

When I think of "the cloud" it reminds me of projects like "SETI at home" where processing power is distributed over the internet, rather than having a supercomputer in the company's basement.

tracer said...

I know you meant it in a figurative way, as a common expression, but the idea that gainful employment "puts food on my table" kind of irks me when I hear it in the modern world.

Generally speaking, if you lose your job, you and your children are not going to starve. First, assuming the job you lose is one as a regular employee (which you may or may not be, but this assumption holds true for most of the folks who say their work "puts food on the table"), you'll go on Unemployment for a few months. This'll give you enough to feed your family, but you'll have to switch from Kellogg's Froot Loops to the generic lower-cost Froot-Loops-clone. Then, one that money runs out, the greatest danger isn't having no food on the table, it's having no table to put the food on -- you probably own or rent a home that was chosen based on the income level you had when you were employed. Take that income stream away, and you'll be behind on your mortgage/rent payments very quickly. You'll have to move somewhere cheaper, or move in with someone you know who'll help you out, or (in the worst case) live out of your car. Hopefully by then you'll have found another job to replace the one you lost, but not everyone is so lucky.

In a worst case scenario, the next thing to usually go are doctor visits and prescription drugs. Starvation for you or your family is the very very LAST thing you'll have to worry about as your financial situation crumbles.

In other words, putting food on the table CAN eventually become a concern, but the idea that the one-and-only job you have, right now, is the only thing that'll keep your family from starving tonight is ... exaggerated, at the very least, and outright misleading at the worst.

Rick said...

Welcome to the discussion threads!

'Put food on the table' is probably best described as a synecdoche for 'making ends meet.' It is true that rent is generally a bigger consideration, and that food is pretty much the last thing financially strapped people will cut out - but that in itself is indicative.

Food is something that a) we have to pay for, and b) actively consume every day, making it a very strong symbolic stand-in for survival.

jollyreaper said...

How about "Putting internet in the tubes?"

Anonymous said...

jollyreaper said:"How about "Putting internet in the tubes?""

Just doesn't have the same feel to it...Rick is right, "put food on the table" does generate an emotional response (good or bad) and gets you thinking about the subject. Tracer is a perfect example of this: a simple statement that resulted in a well thought out reply. ;)