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Nobody knows the lot

Page history last edited by Andrew Alder 3 years, 10 months ago

a page of technology


Years ago I was working as a very junior member of the Applied Mathematics and Computing Division of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission.


This Division (actually we were technically a Section but we had a Division Chief) had working in it three acknowledged world-class geniuses in the field of computing. I wasn't one of them of course. I won't name them simply because it might insult many of the other staff there who were all pretty good, as were all the staff at AAEC. It was a great priviledge to work there.


The person in this story had a four-year honours degree in Computing Science. Every subject in every year was High Distinction, except one. The exception was second year Computing Science. He told me that he hadn't taken it as seriously as he should have, that was why he only got a Distinction. According to the then Vice Chancellor (who was a personal friend of my father) he was the brightest student to have ever attended that University. 


One night he and I were sitting in the tea room of the Computer Building, drinking coffee. I said to him "Something has changed here, and I think I know what. You and (I named the other two) aren't comfortable and I think I know why."


He said "Andrew, you're right, what is it?"


We had just upgraded our central computer, from an IBM 360/65 with one megabyte of 3rd party RAM, to an IBM 3031 with four megabytes.


(Actually I always thought that the RAM box was a two megabyte box with half its memory disabled. In test mode it certainly cycled through two megabytes of addressing. CDC did something similar with some of their Cyber mainframes at the time. You could rent models that weren't available for sale. That was because those rental-only models were actually more powerful models with delay lines added to degrade their performance.) 


I said "Until our one megabyte to four megabyte upgrade, I could take a core dump to any of the three of you and you knew everything relevant that was happening in the computer room. You knew what programs were runnng, what language they were written in, what tape units they were using, what the voltages were on the bus and tag cables. Everything. The rest of us have always needed to treat some of it as black boxes, but you knew the lot."


"But now, you can't do that any more. Four megs has proved too much even for you. And you don't like it!"


He said, "Andrew, I think you're right again."


That was at four megabytes of RAM. My Galaxy S10 mobile 'phone is  a low-end model. It has only eight gigabytes of RAM.


Food for thought?


There's nothing wrong with working with black boxes. Nearly all of my first love, Mathematics, is dedicated to doing exactly that. 


So do it! But do it intentionally. It's important that you should know that you're doing it. And that is the rest of Mathematics. 


See also the expert and the others and a formula for using technology

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