From FORTRAN to iPads

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, October 01, 2013 No Comment(s)

The problem with computers is they keep changing. As soon as you get used to the tricks of a new gadget, some kid comes into the office and says, "That's too old and slow; get rid of it." And 10 minutes later he shows up with a gadget that is either smaller than a class ring, or has all the stuff you had in a tiny phone, plus the beauty of a laptop, in a package the size of a book. This is what happened just this week, and the laptop it took several years to learn to use now sits under the desk, complete with backup batteries for the mouse, gathering dust for perhaps the next 100 years until somebody gets a lot of money for it as a prized antique.  
It took some time to get used to that now useless laptop. It was presented in a hurry, by a woman who had no idea how it worked, just before a big trip, with minimal instructions based on words that did not mean what they meant. A big deal was made of inserting the "card." The only problem was that nothing in the support package looked like a card. Not a card like in American Express card or ace-of-hearts playing card. It took hundreds of miles, and suggestions from any number of 16-year-old experts, before an item that looked like  a gizmo turned out to be the card in question. Then it took another day just to figure out how to get this little plastic rectangle to open, and determine which port (not like Port Everglades, more like a slot) it fit in.  
Ultimately the obstacles were overcome, including realizing that even when correctly formatted, you could not get the laptop to work on the top of a North Carolina mountain. And there came a day, months later, when on a 90-minute Amtrak ride from Philadelphia to Washington, a whole chapter of a book appeared from that computer, rocking train and all. The joy of that achievement was lost upon returning to Florida to learn the laptop was too old, too heavy and needed a replacement.  
Oh, for the day when our family, or at least one member of it, was a pioneer in the computer revolution. This was back in the 1960s when our late brother Mike, Ph.D and math whiz, who was teaching at Columbia University, took us into a building to see a UNIVAC machine that took up the better part of a city block. Already an expert on the subject, Mike said this machine could do amazing things. He knew his stuff. He even wrote a book, Numerical Methods in FORTRAN. He wrote it in 1964 with another genius, Mario Salvadori, and although we had never heard of FORTRAN, we were emboldened to review the book. Although their literary styles were similar, we could spot which parts our brother wrote and which belonged to Professor Salvadori.  
For instance, this is clearly our brother’s inimitable style:      
“Integration formulas for any n and any m may be derived in a similar manner. Some of them are presented in Table 3.3.1, where the interval of integration is indicated by the boldface coefficients. To illustrate, the 4-point integration formula for the strip from I to I + 1 (3.3.17), reads: I1q4 (i) = h/24 (9f. + 19f I + 1 = 5f I + 2 + fi+3).” Mike talked like that all the time.     
Now Salvadori, whose prose was more Shakespearean, was obviously the author of these lines: “The Newton-Raphson integration formula (4.2.1) can be applied to the evaluation of the real roots (if any) of the transcendental equation.”     
Our favorite scene in the book is when FORTRAN, having just broken up with his girlfriend, Cubicella, stares at the moon and says: “An ordinary initial-value problem is governed by an ordinary differential equation and a set of conditions all valid at the same “starting” point, x = xo.” She never found another guy who could talk like that.     
Unfortunately, they don’t make writers like that anymore. And it’s hard to find a computer a block long that you can operate simply by reading a book.  

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