Friday, August 31, 2012

Digital Apocrypha

Or, Don't Believe Everything That You Are Told.

...But they do tell the story, or whisper it anyway, late at night, when the data centers are as quiet as they ever get and ghosts of ancient hard drives spin down, platters as big as truck tires keening at the edge of audibility. It's the story of Grace Hopper, the Navy's earliest attempts at organic computers, and how one small woman routed the clam menace[1] with a single sentence.

You see, researchers working for ONR had discovered that clams could be used as logic elements -- attach the electrodes one way, you had an AND gate; hook them up another way, you got an EXOR.[2] And so on. Big clams worked better than small ones, it was just easier to hook 'em up, and pretty soon they'd settled on the plentiful geoduck clam, so meaty it can't even hide in its shell. A weak-saltwater aquarium full of them was a sight to behold, bubbling away with a full matrix of wired-up geoducks, siphons at full extension in transparent nutrient gel.

The U. S. Navy was proud of these contraptions and were using arrays of bivalve organic gates, so much simpler and less costly than huge arrays of relays, to work out the basics of programming. As soon as they'd smuggled Dr. Hopper past the weight limit ( for reasons of stability,WAVES had to weigh at least 120 pounds and at 105, she was considered unfit to face a Nor'easter...in a computer lab), they sent her to examine the secret ONR clam-logic facility.

She was beyond unimpressed; she was furious at the wasted effort. "Gentlemen," Lt. (j.g.) Hopper exclaimed, "you cannot possibly develop useful programming based on a series of logical phallacies!"
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1. I've mentioned the clam menace before. Sometimes, it's zebra clams, which scour the water so clean nothing else can live in it; sometimes, it's something else. This is an example of the second sort.

2. All ORs were XORs, back in the day; that's just how it was. You were either okay with it or not. Or would that be okay or okay? Depends on which way is up.

14 comments:

Drang said...

I started groaning at about sentence two, just to get a head start...

BGMiller said...

Actually....
That would really explain large chunks of this intertubes thingy.....



BGM

GreyLocke said...

Thank you for the link to Admiral Hopper. I wish I had been able to meet her, she would have been great to have a conversation with.

Keads said...

This post along with others is why I come here. Thanks for the history young lady.

The Big Guy said...

Why did I hear that opening paragraph in the voice of Kurt Russell as truck driver Jack Burton in "Big Trouble in Little China"?

TBG

JC said...

Wow - thirty years to reach Captain rank? Shows how the Paperwork Fairy works, don't it? Can't be trusted in chain of command, y'know.

Mr.B said...

Somewhere, in all my stuff, I still have the "Nanosecond" she gave me when I was at a talk she did at school.

Circa 1986....she was old then, but a hell of a speaker and a really good lecturer. Very impressive lady.

Robin said...

Puns are war crimes. I hope you are ashamed of yourself.

Brigid said...

It's an honor to occassionally sit alongside your brain. Thanks for sharing this (and don't give all the smoked tuna to Huck!)

og said...

Few people realize the common misspelling of the third word in "Moby Dick" is due to this creature. Our hero, who recounted the true story to Herman Mellville, had been working in a Geoduck fishery, so fast at skinning these unusual clams that his co workers gave him the name asigned to the special knife used by Mohel. "Call me Izmel" he said.

rickn8or said...

Ow.

Never saw that one coming.

The Big Guy said...

@Og-
Ouch... Double ouch, as a matter of fact.
One would think you'd be more circum*spect about such punnery in mixed company.

Roberta X said...

Mr. B, you should have your nanosecond mounted and framed!

Kirk A said...

Wonderful wordplay. However, I wouldn't have realized it without the helpful links.