Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Fifty Years of the Nova

My friend Blake recently emailed me a link to a video tour of much gear brought together this past fall to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Data General's Nova minicomputer. I was a bit surprised not to have heard of it, not that I could have made it to Denver for two days of reveling in old systems.

The Novas and their successors in the Eclipse line had a good run. By the end of twenty years, though, a prescient eye could see the run coming to an end. About 1990, an article in Focus, the Data General Users Group magazine, mentioned a 386-based PC beating an MV/20000 minicomputer on a sorting benchmark. I would imagine that the PC cost at most $5000; the one reference I can find on-line for MV/20000 pricing says that they cost $200,000 and up when introduced in 1985. One could do a number of things with the minicomputer that one couldn't do with the PC, for example support a lot of word-processing users. But by the early 1990s organizations wanted to use the PCs for word processing. And by the middle of the 1990s, RISC-based systems running UNIX had largely supplanted the old minicomputers for such work as the PCs hadn't taken over.

I must say that I enjoyed working with the Novas and Eclipses. Given a day or so to brush up, I might be able again to write programs and scripts for them. Yet what then? Pretty much everything I did on the machines was for use, not play, and I doubt anyone is now doing the those tasks on them.

Yet here are to this day machines emulating the Eclipse instruction set to run old programs. How many, I can't say. Probably the people at Wild Hare Computer Systems have a good idea.

Monday, January 14, 2019


Novalis writes that
For all the gaps and imperfections of his knowledge, which necessarily arise from his manner of study, the autodidact has on the other hand the great advantage that every new idea that he makes his own thus enters into the community of his knowledge and ideas, and mixes itself most intimately with the whole of them; and this gives the opportunity for original connections and many new discoveries.
(New Fragments, 169)

 Schooling ought to show one many of the connections and convey the information that would go into at least some of what here will be new discoveries. Yet the elective system and the general tendency of American schooling make it possible for one to spend many expensive years in school and remain essentially an autodidact.  It is true, though, that many of the reasonably schooled don't much care to make connections. A college teacher once told me that her students appeared to keep separate, non-communicating apartments in their minds for different kinds and sources of information.

Saturday, January 12, 2019


Noticed in W.V.O. Quine's Word and Object, Section 24, "Identity":
Though the notion of identity is simple, confusion over it is not uncommon. One instance is suggested by the fragment from Heraclitus, according to which you cannot step into the same river twice, because of the flowing of the water. This difficulty is resolved by looking to the principle of the division of reference belonging to the general term 'river'. One's being counted as stepping into the same river both times is typical of precisely what distinguishes rivers both from river stages and from water divided in substance-conserving ways.
Quine was a notable philosopher, I am but a casual reader of philosophy. Yet I imagine that Heraclitus had a sound understanding of what his fellows meant by river. That is, if someone had asked Heraclitus whether this was the Maeander, or whether this was the same river he had seen over the last range of hills, Heraclitus would have answered colloquially, not dialectically. I judge that Heraclitus was not attempting to write a work of logic such as Aristotle later did, but giving his sense of the slipperiness of reality.

In 7 Greeks, Guy Davenport gives as fragment 21
One cannot step twice into the same river, for the water into which you first stepped has flowed on.
and as fragment 110
The river we stepped into is not the river in which we stand.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Feast of Artists

In a letter of January 9, 1945, Evelyn Waugh wrote to his wife
 Have you ever considered how the Epiphany is the feast of artists. I thought so very strongly this year. After St Joseph and the angels and the shepherds and even the ox and the ass have had their share of the crib, twelve days later appears an exotic caravan with negro pages and ostrich plumes. The have come an enormous journey across a desert and the splendid gifts look much less splendid than they did when they were being packed in Babylon. The wise men committed ever sort of bĂȘtise--even asking the way of Herod & provoking the massacre of the innocents--but they got there in the end and their gifts were accepted.
 I have always detested Christmas. Now I shall always celebrate Epiphany instead.
In fact, it seems to have been the secular trappings that bothered Waugh. On December 28, 1935, he wrote to Katherine Asquith that "It was decent to have Christmas without the Hitlerite adjuncts of yule logs and reindeer and Santa Claus and conifers."  In  1952 he wrote well of Christmas in Goa, where there was "No mistletoe or holly or Yule logs or Teutonic nonsense."

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Nothing Like Numbers

The New York Times of New Years carried a piece by one Paul Greenberg, asserting that we should spend less time with and less money on our smartphones. In general I agree, and probably I would have nodded and forgotten about the piece in ten minutes. But a paragraph caught my eye:
The average reader, reading at a speed of 280 words per minute, would take approximately 71½ hours to read the 1.3 million words in Marcel Proust’s "In Search of Lost Time."
 Has Mr. Greenberg read Lost Time already? If not, is he willing to demonstrate the feat? If so, can he provide an average reader, having no prior acquaintance with the work, to undertake it? I'm sure that the readership of the Times includes dozens of professors who would be happy to devise and grade a test of the reader's comprehension.

I was astonished by this, and so on my first look missed the assertion that
In most Western states, that $1,380 you spent on your phone could buy half an acre of land. In the right conditions, that half acre could easily accommodate 150 trees. A single tree sequesters 48 pounds of carbon a year. It takes about 30 minutes for an amateur forester to plant a tree. If every American smartphone owner used that time and money to plant half an acre of trees, we would sequester about 886 million tons of carbon a year, enough to offset more than 10 percent of the country’s annual emissions.  
Well, for one thing, the right conditions for trees include water, which can be hard to come by in the western United States east of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades. The price per acre will depend on what a seller thinks can be done with it, and I suspect that most western land that will support trees either already does, is used for crops, or is improved by building. In the first case, the land has all the trees it can reasonably accommodate, in the second and third (and maybe the first), the price will be a good deal higher. For another, the roughly 123 million acres, at 640 acres per square mile, amount to about 190 thousand square miles. That is a bit more than the size of California.

Yes, it is a hypothetical proposition. But stated as it is, it invites objection. Numbers can be used to inform or to dazzle. This piece leaned too much towards the latter.