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Monday, December 22, 2014

Flashback

NCR computer at Morgan Equipment, Bougainville Island 1980

 

Thanks to our cottage guests, we needn't go anywhere as the world comes to us. We constantly meet interesting people and I met my 'alter ego' in our recent guest Bernard whose experience in computing parallels my own.

We both started programming with the help of punchcards in the mid-70s, he in New Zealand and I on the Waigani Campus of the University of Papua New Guinea where the English lecturer Ian Grant opened my eyes to the beauty of FORTRAN IV.

Then came the first harddisks which, when first created in the 1950s and 1960s, were the size of a cheese platter with just a few megabytes of storage. The removable harddisk I am holding in the photo above in the offices of Morgan Equipment on Bougainville Island in 1980, held what is now a laughable but was then a whopping big ten megabytes.

Now we have tiny memory sticks with the capacity of a terabyte (TB) which is 1000 gigabytes (GB) or one trillion bytes! For the tetrapods amongst you who still walk on all fours, please note that it is terabyte which is derived from the Greek word 'teras', meaning “monster”, and not tetrabyte which is ancient Greek for "four".

Both Bernard and I had programmed in COBOL ("common business oriented language") which was invented in 1959 by a committee established by the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the oldest computer programming language. Banks, financial markets, governments and the military-industrial complex all programmed their computer mainframes with COBOL. Only a few had bothered to spend the vast sums necessary to retool or update when more advanced languages came along with the result that fewer and fewer cutting-edge programmers and IT experts in the West were versed in COBOL.

Which led us to talk about India and Y2K. You remember Y2K or the millenium bug, don't you? All computers have internals calendars which employ six digits - YYMMDD - to display the date. The first two numbers in the sequence signified the year; consequently, "991231" was scheduled to become "000101" at midnight, on January 1, 2000, at which point all old computers using this illogical calendar and programmed mainly in COBOL would go into meltdown. Planes would plummeted from the sky, trillions of dollars would be wiped from banking systems, and governments would stop functioning. It was even suggested that confused computers in Washington and Moscow would launch nuclear weapons on each other.

So what happened? In a word, nothing. But India benefited hugely from this non-existent problem because, having only reluctantly entered the computer age in the 1980s and a decade on still teaching and using COBOL, it suddenly had a huge competitive edge when Western multinational were caught up in the Y2K hysteria. The Indian government promptly advertised the nation's debugging expertise in COBOL and earned more than US$2 billion in export revenue. In addition to this immediate revenue from the 'fixing' of the Y2K bug, it also launched Indian IT on the path of becoming the world's leading supplier of outsourced computer programming skills.

Those days are gone now and so is Bernard and I am waiting for our next guests to bring back other long forgotten memories.