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Prof. Boerner's Explorations

Thoughts and Essays that explore the world of Technology, Computers, Photography, History and Family.


Archive for September 10th, 2009
by Gerald Boerner

“In the judgment of design engineers, the ordinary means of communicating with a computer are entirely inadequate.”
— Sir Maurice Wilkes, British Computer Scientist

Bonus: Thought for the Day…
“A source of strength in the early days was that groups in various parts of the world were prepared to construct experimental computers without necessarily intending them to be the prototype for serial production. As a result, there became available a body of knowledge about what would work and what would not work.”
— Sir Maurice Wilkes, British Computer Scientist

Bonus: Thought for the Day…
“Much of the early engineering development of digital computers was done in universities. A few years ago, the view was commonly expressed that universities had played their part in computer design, and that the matter could now safely be left to industry. […] Apart from the obvious functions of keeping in the public domain material that might otherwise be hidden, universities can make a special contribution by reason of their freedom from commercial considerations, including freedom from the need to follow the fashion.”
— Sir Maurice Wilkes, British Computer Scientist

Bonus: Thought for the Day…
“Graphical communication in some form or other is of vital importance in engineering as that subject is now conducted; we must either provide the capability in our computer systems, or take on the impossible task of training up a future race of engineers conditioned to think in a different way.”
— Sir Maurice Wilkes, British Computer Scientist

Bonus: Thought for the Day…
“The artificial intelligence approach may not be altogether the right one to make to the problem of designing automatic assembly devices. Animals and machines are constructed from entirely different materials and on quite different principles. When engineers have tried to draw inspiration from a study of the way animals work they have usually been misled; the history of early attempts to construct flying machines with flapping wings illustrates this very clearly.”
— Sir Maurice Wilkes, British Computer Scientist

Bonus: Thought for the Day…
“Surveying the shifts of interest among computer scientists and the ever-expanding family of those who depend on computers for their work, one cannot help being struck by the power of the computer to bind together, in a genuine community of interest, people whose motivations differ widely.”
— Sir Maurice Wilkes, British Computer Scientist

Bonus: Thought for the Day…
“As soon as we started programming, we found to our surprise that it wasn’t as easy to get programs right as we had thought. Debugging had to be discovered. I can remember the exact instant when I realized that a large part of my life from then on was going to be spent in finding mistakes in my own programs.”
— Maurice Wilkes, as referenced by Peter Van der Linden, in Expert C Programming


Sir Maurice Vincent Wilkes (born 1913)

Maurice_V_Wilkes Sir Maurice Vincent Wilkes is a British computer scientist credited with several important developments in computing.

In 1945, Wilkes was appointed as the second director of the University of Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory (later known as the Computer Laboratory).

The Cambridge laboratory initially had many different computing devices, including a differential analyser. Wilkes obtained a copy of John von Neumann’s prepress description of the EDVAC, a successor to the ENIAC under construction by Presper Eckert and John Mauchly at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering. He had to read it overnight because he had to return it and no photocopy facilities existed. He decided immediately that the document described the logical design of future computing machines, and that he wanted to be involved in the design and construction of such machines.

Construction of the EDSAC

Since his laboratory had its own funding, he was immediately able to start work on a small practical machine, the EDSAC, once back at Cambridge. He decided that his mandate was not to invent a better computer, but simply to make one available to the university. Therefore his approach was relentlessly practical. He used only proven methods for constructing each part of the computer. The resulting computer was slower and smaller than other planned contemporary computers. However, his laboratory’s computer was the first practical stored program computer to be completed, and operated successfully from May 1949.

EDSAC_(10)Other computing developments

In 1951, he developed the concept of microprogramming from the realization that the Central Processing Unit of a computer could be controlled by a miniature, highly specialised computer program in high-speed ROM. This concept greatly simplified CPU development. Microprogramming was first described at the Manchester University Computer Inaugural Conference in 1951, then published in expanded form in IEEE Spectrum in 1955. This concept was implemented for the first time in EDSAC 2, which also used multiple identical "bit slices" to simplify design. Interchangeable, replaceable tube assemblies were used for each bit of the processor. This was extremely advanced for the time.

The next computer for his laboratory was the Titan, a joint venture with Ferranti Ltd. It eventually supported the UK’s first time-sharing system and provided wider access to computing resources in the university, including time-shared graphics systems for mechanical CAD.

800px-PDP-8i_cpuA notable design feature of the Titan’s operating system was that it provided controlled access based on the identity of the program, as well as or instead of, the identity of the user. It introduced the password encryption system used later by Unix. Its programming system also had an early version control system.

Wilkes is also credited with the idea of symbolic labels, macros, and subroutine libraries. These are fundamental developments that made programming much easier and paved the way for high-level programming languages.

Later, Wilkes worked on an early timesharing systems (now termed a multi-user operating system) and distributed computing.

In his Memoirs Wilkes writes:

It was on one of my journeys between the EDSAC room and the punching equipment that "hesitating at the angle of the stairs" the realization came over me with full force that a good part of the remainder of my life was going to be spent finding errors in my own programs.

Awards, honors, and leadership positions

In 1956 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was a founder member of the British Computer Society (BCS) and its first president (1957-1960).

“Professor Wilkes is best known as the builder and designer of the EDSAC, the first computer with an internally stored program. Built in 1949, the EDSAC used a mercury delay line memory. He is also known as the author, with Wheeler and Gill, of a volume on "Preparation of Programs for Electronic Digital Computers" in 1951, in which program libraries were effectively introduced.”
1967 Turing Award citation

[Biographical information is from the Wikipedia article on
Sir Maurice Wilkes that can be found at: ]

Just in time for back to school preparation… This is a list of 10 extensions for Firefox that will make it easier to use this browser for doing your homework. They look interesting and would be worth spending a little time evaluating them for your own use. If they work well for you, let us know…

Back to School: 10 Must-Have Firefox Extensions for Students 

Firefox is the world’s number two web browser, but it is probably the best option for students. In addition to being a stable and well designed browser with useful features, such as tabs, private browsing, and session restore, the reason Firefox is such a great option for students is its extensions.

Firefox has a vast library of user created add-ons and extensions that can be used to customize the browser and make it perfectly suited to the needs of a student. Below we’ve collected a list of 10 essential Firefox extensions that no student should be without. What other Firefox extensions are helping you at school this year? Let us know in the comments. … [MORE]

by Gerald Boerner

“The portrait I do best is of the person I know best.”
— Félix Nadar, French Photographer


Félix Nadar (April 6, 1820 – March 21, 1910)

493px-Nadar-Self-Portrait Félix Nadar was the pseudonym of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, a French photographer, caricaturist, journalist, novelist and balloonist. Some photographs by Nadar are marked "P. Nadar" for "Photographie Nadar"

He was a caricaturist for Le Charivari in 1848. In 1849 he created the Revue comique and the Petit journal pour rire. He took his first photographs in 1853 and in 1858 became the first person to take aerial photographs. He also pioneered the use of artificial lighting in photography, working in the catacombs of Paris.

Nadar was one of the most creative, original and daring artists and entrepreneurs of the 19th century. When he was a young man, his socialist sympathies caused him to be placed under police surveillance. He nursed the dying Charles Baulelaire, who called him “the most astonishing expression of vitality.”

459px-Nadar in Le Géant Around 1863, Nadar built a huge (6000 m³) balloon named Le Géant ("The Giant"), thereby inspiring Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon. The "Géant" project was unsuccessful and convinced him that the future belonged to heavier-than-air machines. Afterwards "The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by Means of Heavier than Air Machines" was established, with Nadar as president and Verne as secretary. Nadar was also the inspiration for the character of Michael Ardan in Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon.

After taking up photography in 1854, not a year passed before Nadar produced now legendary photographs. He photographed many of the most famous French men and women of his time. He stood above all for high quality portraiture. Many of these portraits have since become canonical records of their sitters’ appearance. The strait-forward yet monumental style of the portraits, the way they bring out the sitters’ intellect and charisma, not to mention humor, and underplay their attire and surroundings, made Nadar famous. These were portraits of artists by an artist. [50 Photographers You Should Know]

485px-Sand-NadarIn April 1874, he lent his photo studio to a group of painters, thus making the first exhibition of the Impressionists possible. He photographed Victor Hugo on his death-bed in 1885. He is credited with having published (in 1886) the first photo-interview (of famous chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, then a centenarian), and also took erotic photographs.

From 1895 until his return to Paris in 1909, the Nadar photo studio was in Marseilles (France).

[Biographical information is from the Wikipedia article on Félix Nadar that can be found at: ]

Does the current generation reverse the adage: a picture is worth a 1000 words? If one accepts the premise of this article, that may be true. Teenagers today are texting more and communicating ‘face-to-face’ less than previous generations. Consequently, they seem to be less aware of non-verbal cues when they do interact together face-to-face… This can have good and bad points. Think about it, read this article, think some more, and let me know what you come up with…

Why Generation-Y Can’t Read Nonverbal Cues – 


An emphasis on social networking puts younger people at a face-to-face disadvantage.

Communication tools focused on the written word could be leaving younger people adrift when faced with body language.

In September 2008, when Nielsen Mobile announced that teenagers with cellphones each sent and received, on average, 1,742 text messages a month, the number sounded high, but just a few months later Nielsen raised the tally to 2,272. A year earlier, the National School Boards Association estimated that middle- and high-school students devoted an average of nine hours to social networking each week. Add email, blogging, IM, tweets and other digital customs and you realize what kind of hurried, 24/7 communications system young people experience today.

Unfortunately, nearly all of their communication tools involve the exchange of written words alone. At least phones, cellular and otherwise, allow the transmission of tone of voice, pauses and the like. But even these clues are absent in the text-dependent world. Users insert smiley-faces into emails, but they don’t see each others’ actual faces. They read comments on Facebook, but they don’t "read" each others’ posture, hand gestures, eye movements, shifts in personal space and other nonverbal—and expressive—behaviors. … [MORE]

Some interesting thoughts on the effects of family makeup on early puberty… This article presents a well thought-out analysis of the early puberty that seems to be hitting girls in today’s society. I think it is well worth-while to read it over, think about it, and maybe even discuss it within your family. The part about when a girl’s body thinks it is either ‘in the nest’ or ‘out of the nest’ is especially interesting. Read it and let us know what you think…

Why Are Girls Getting Their Periods So Early? – Parenting on Shine 

It has as much to do with your divorce as with hormones in the food.

Dr. Wendy Walsh: No doubt about it, girls are getting their periods earlier and earlier — and this has been going on for decades. I was just shy of my fifteenth birthday when I started menstruating back in the 1970s. My daughter was only ten when she got her first period this year. Since she wore pull-up diapers at night for many years until her bladder matured, I feel like I had only a brief reprieve between buying diapers and pads.

While the Internet is crawling with posters that quickly point to hormones used to increase meat, chicken, and dairy production as the basis for this phenomenon, there is a far more complicated answer — part of which might make you feel a bit uncomfortable. … [MORE]

Beware of your Debit Cards, they bite! This piece, in the New York Times, presents some interesting info on how banks and credit unions are using overdraft fees on Debit Cards to enrich their bottom lines. Yes, one needs to keep your spending within limits, but the particulars of the case in point may indicate the future of banking, in spite of the massive bailouts received by many of the largest banks, those that were not allowed to fail… Read it over and let us know what you think…

overspending-on-debit-cards-is-a-boon-for-banks.html: Personal Finance News from Yahoo! Finance 

image When Peter Means returned to graduate school after a career as a civil servant, he turned to a debit card to help him spend his money more carefully.

So he was stunned when his bank charged him seven $34 fees to cover seven purchases when there was not enough cash in his account, notifying him only afterward. He paid $4.14 for a coffee at Starbucks — and a $34 fee. He got the $6.50 student discount at the movie theater — but no discount on the $34 fee. He paid $6.76 at Lowe’s for screws — and yet another $34 fee. All told, he owed $238 in extra charges for just a day’s worth of activity.

Mr. Means, who is 59 and lives in Colorado, figured employees at his bank, Wells Fargo, would show some mercy since each purchase was less than $12. In addition, a deposit from a few days earlier would have covered everything had it not taken days to clear. But they would not budge. … [MORE]

Fighting during the day & hooking up at night… Apple and Amazon are fighting with each other one moment, and then hooking up with the same, absurd customer protection policy. Each of these companies refuses to disable their consumer electronic devices (the iPod and Kindle, respectively), but they will protect your online account. How nice! But too little… What do you think?

Apple and Amazon to users: Shut up and give us the money | Mobile device management – InfoWorld 

imageAmazon and Apple refuse to "brick" stolen devices in just another symptom of contempt for the customer…

I was walking in Glen Park, a solidly middle-class San Francisco neighborhood, the other day. And there on a telephone pole was a notice from the police warning me not to use my iPhone openly or walk around with the tell-tale white ear buds showing. You can guess the reason. iPhones and ear buds are mugger magnets. Solid, if unsettling, advice I thought. And when I did a little research, I found that police in other cities — New York, for one — hand out similar advice.

Yet when queried about cell phone theft by the New York Times, John Walls, a spokesman for the CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade group, says that phones are so cheap (because of carrier subsidies) that theft is not a significant problem. What a bunch of nonsense. Police aren’t handing out those warning for nothing. So far this year, there have been 120 robberies involving iPhones in San Francisco, a five-fold increase over 2008, Sgt. Wilfred Williams, a spokesman for the SFPD, told me. And sometimes the victim is beaten, not just robbed. Sounds significant to me. As does the $199 to $299 price tag. … [MORE]

God to Steve Jobs… You are not I! Jobs used Apple’s Media ‘Thing’ to announce the iPod Touch as a game platform and didn’t announce any of the upcoming Apple Tablets. But then he went on to criticize Amazon for the supposedly weak Kindle sales and the ‘single use’ function of the eBook reader… Does he forget that the Palm Pilot kicked the ‘b_tt’ of Apple’s Newton so many years ago? What do you think?

Steve Jobs: Amazon hiding poor Kindle sales | 

Apple chief Steve Jobs has taken a pot shot at Amazon claiming that the giant internet retailer is hiding poor sales of the device. At an Apple event held yesterday (9th September), during which Jobs showed off a new iPod nano with a built in video camera but did not unveile its rumoured Apple Tablet, Jobs said the Kindle’s main flaw was its specialised role and its cost, which was too high for a single function device. He also suggested that Amazon’s refusal to provide definite numbers for Kindle sales was a sign it hasn’t succeeded in the market. … [MORE]