Showing posts with label IBM. Show all posts
Showing posts with label IBM. Show all posts

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Enough cash to buy the USA

When I was working with IBM Australia back in Sydney during the period 1957-1961, I remember being most impressed by an anecdote designed to reveal the fabulous prosperity of my US employer. Somebody told me that IBM was so wealthy that the corporation could simply pay cash for such-and-such a South American nation… in the "banana republic" category, if I remember rightly. At the time, I wouldn't have been capable of deciding whether or not this was rubbish talk, so I simply believed what I was told, and got on (proudly, no doubt) with my computer programming tasks.

These days, thanks to Internet, we're more cautious about tales of this kind, since people are more and more capable of verifying the degree of truth in what is being stated. We're no longer obliged to survive in the kind of informational vacuum that shrouded the planet up until recently… except, of course, if your antiquated beliefs, your inbuilt mental structure and your cultural conditioning force you (with or without Internet) to do so.

Today, we're told (and it's no doubt true) that the Apple corporation disposes of cash liquidities of 76 billion dollars, whereas those of the entity known as the USA amount to 73 billion dollars. The latter sum represents what the USA can actually spend before they hit their official national debt limit of well over 14 billion dollars, illustrated here:

It's said that, if the current US debt were to be materialized in 100-dollar banknotes, the stack of greenbacks would cover a football field up to the height of the left arm of the Statue of Liberty. This explains why a dynamic corporation such as Apple would never—in spite of having enough ready cash to do so—invest in such an unpromising financial affair as God's Own Country.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Moving into a troubled city

Last Thursday evening, a fascinating TV program concerning the long and tumultuous career of the former French police chief Maurice Papon [1910-2007] reminded me retrospectively that I was surely a naive and uninformed Antipodean when I first arrived in Paris on Sunday, 4 February 1962. In particular, I was totally unaware that the French nation was in a state of undeclared war with her former colony, Algeria. On Monday, 12 February, a week after my arrival in Paris, I started working as a computer programmer with the European headquarters of IBM. Between these two events in my narrow personal existence, the tragedy of the métro Charonne had unfolded. Papon's police had pushed leftist political demonstrators down the steps towards the underground station (not far from where my daughter now lives), without realizing that the steel grid was closed, resulting in the death of nine individuals.

On that cold day, I was wandering around in the Latin Quarter, searching for an item of clothing that I had never possessed back out in Australia: an overcoat. Since I was incapable of understanding French-language newspapers, and had no access to TV, I was unaware that a tragedy had taken place over on the other side of the Seine. In any case, I was quite unaware of the Algerian conflict in which France had been bogged down for years. Among other things, I had never heard of the bloody events that had occurred in Paris on 17 October of the previous year (at a time when I had just celebrated my 21st birthday, out in Sydney, and was looking forward excitedly to leaving soon for Europe on the Greek vessel Bretagne), when Papon's police simply executed spontaneously and brutally an unknown number (between tens and hundreds) of Algerians who appeared to sympathize with the FLN [National Liberation Front] and tossed their bodies into the Seine.

Within a few days of my settling down in Paris, I was brought face-to-face with the realities of living in a city in which plastic explosives were being detonated by insurrectionists, intending to draw attention to nasty events on the other side of the Mediterranean. One evening, as I opened the door into my tiny hotel room in the Rue des Ecoles (just a few hundred meters away from the Sorbonne), an explosion destroyed a bookshop on the other side of the street. I remember the familiar horn signals of police vehicles against the delicate tinkling (like proverbial Xmas sleigh bells) of glass fragments falling from shattered windows in the vicinity of the targeted bookshop. A few days later, when I arrived at the IBM building in the Cité du Retiro (just near the Elysée Palace), I learned that an explosion had occurred there during the night. A month later, everything calmed down overnight when the president Charles de Gaulle signed a peace agreement with the FLN on 18 March 1962 at Evian-les-Bains, in the French Alps.

Meanwhile, IBM France (whose headquarters were located at the Place Vendôme) had given me an identity card.

By that time, I had moved into a tiny so-called "maid's room" at the top of the Hôtel du Pas de Calais in the Rue des Saints Pères.

An aspect of my professional situation at IBM that amazed me was the effort they were devoting to the challenge of my obtaining a French work permit. The procedure was set in motion by an initial visit to the Préfecture de Police on the Ile de la Cité. This was the headquarters of the domain of de Gaulle's police chief, Maurice Papon: a vast stone building alongside the Seine, just opposite the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, built around a square courtyard.

I was accompanied to the préfecture by a curious Frenchman who was surely being paid by IBM to assist foreigners such as myself. Within the precincts of the police domain, he seemed to be on friendly personal terms with many members of the clerical staff. Consequently, we were never obliged to line up in queues, or even wait to be received by prefectural personnel. I was amused by a trivial gimmick that my guide exploited constantly. In his coat pockets, he seemed to have an ample supply of American filter cigarettes. Whenever he ran into somebody he knew, his initial gesture consisted of offering him/her a cigarette, which was inevitably received with a smile, and immediately lit up. (Office employees all smoked furiously at that time.) Clearly, this gift of a cigarette was some kind of symbolic trick (a code?) intended to indicate that he had a job to do (organize my request for a work permit), and needed help from his friends.

I would not actually receive the desired document for another three months. During that time, IBM arranged a contact for me in London (since only a French consulate in a foreign land could actually instigate the issue of a work permit to a non-French individual), and it was planned that, as soon as this London contact received a consular request demanding my presence for an interview, I was to drop everything I was doing and jump onto an Air France Caravelle bound for London, enabling me to turn up at the consulate as if I had just taken the London Underground to get there. That trick—which necessitated no less than three return trips to London—enabled me to carry on working for IBM in Paris in spite of the fact that I did not yet possess a work permit. Obviously, everybody—both at the Paris prefecture and at the consulate in London—knew that I was playing a silly game, but we were obliged to behave like that in order to obtain the precious document in a manner that was superficially legal… which was finally issued to me on 15 May 1962.

Over the years, since then, I've often thought back to those first three months at IBM in Paris (where I would remain for another four months), and I've always wondered how a US company in Paris might have got around to employing a French fellow such as my guide, whose job consisted of leading me through the curious procedures that would enable me to become a regular employee in France. Well, it was only last Thursday, in the middle of the TV program about Papon, that I finally received a plausible but totally unexpected (and not particularly nice) explanation. At some time after being named Préfet de Police in March 1958, Papon called upon IBM France to develop a modern punched-card system (not yet using a computer, if I understand correctly) to handle the "management" of the tens of thousands of potential FLN activists residing in metropolitan France. In other words, for Charles de Gaulle and the French police hierarchy, IBM may have been considered as more than just an ordinary American business corporation. And there may have been vague reasons of one kind or another for treating foreign IBM personnel as VIP workers.

We must not, however, exaggerate. If the French authorities had really wanted to make it easy for me to work legally in France, they would have simply handed me a work permit, instead of expecting me to wander around in their red-tape world (of the Paris prefecture and the London consulate) for three months before issuing me a lousy temporary work permit. In any case, it's almost certain that many French visionaries (including de Gaulle) sensed that the intriguing computer phenomenon, represented ideally by IBM, would no doubt play a role in the industrial, scientific and economic future of France.

POST SCRIPTUM: It goes without saying that the work for which I was employed by IBM Europe (programming the IBM 1401 computer), from 12 February 1962 up until 28 September 1962, had nothing whatsoever to do with the above-mentioned punched-card project carried out by IBM France with a view to controlling the Algerian population residing in France at that time. IBM was an emanation—as is well known—of the Hollerith punched-card company, whose most celebrated primordial exploit in data processing (as this activity came to be called) entailed the use of punched cards to process the results of the US census of 1890. So, there was nothing particularly exceptional in Papon's use of this same punched-card support, some 70 years later, to store data concerning people in France. As for Maurice Papon, he was finally condemned and jailed for his role in the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux during the Nazi Occupation, and he was also stigmatized (but never actually pursued in a law court) for the murky aspects of his treatment of Algerians. But it would be an absurd deduction to imagine that there might have been anything intrinsically evil, a priori, in the above-mentioned IBM punched-card project. On the other hand, all this precise and well-organized police data concerning FLN suspects, placed conveniently at the fingertips of Papon, would have certainly made it easier for him to perpetrate evil deeds.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Centenary of a computing giant

These days, we hear a lot about the achievements of Apple. I'm unlikely to complain about that, of course, because I've always been totally addicted to the products of Cupertino, from back at the time I wrote my first book about the Mac, in 1984, and even before then, at the pioneering epoch of the Apple II computer.

In the midst of all the talk about the marvelous creations of Steve Jobs, we must never forget, however, that the Big Daddy of computing has always remained a celebrated US corporation that made a name for itself by selling so-called "business machines" on an international scale.

In 2011, the company will be turning 100, which means that it was born in the same year as Tennessee Williams, Ronald Reagan and France's Georges Pompidou. I joined IBM in Sydney towards the end of 1957, and worked as a computer programmer using the Fortran language on a vacuum-tube machine called the IBM 650, whose central memory was housed on a revolving magnetically-coated drum.

The new IBM website designed to celebrate the centenary includes an interesting video on the second-generation transistorized computer that came next: the IBM 1401, seen here in an old marketing photo:

This was the machine I was programming (in a macro-assembler language called Autocoder) at the time I arrived in Paris, in 1962, and started to work at the European headquarters of IBM. Click the above photo to see the video concerning this machine, which shows various former IBMers of my generation.

These days, IBM has embarked upon a colossal computer challenge in the domain of artificial intelligence. Known as Watson (the name of the founder of IBM), this project aims to get a computer to perform better than human beings in the American TV game called Jeopardy! The system, based upon so-called massively-parallel probabilistic evidence-based architecture, incorporates a vast array of big boxes that have much the same external aspect as the units of an archaic IBM 1401… but you can be sure they do more things!

Click the photo to visit IBM's website on their fabulous Watson project.

AFTERTHOUGHT: It's good, in a way, that IBM has been somewhat out of the limelight for many years, compared to companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Google. That has enabled IBM to move ahead quietly and constantly in a field such as artificial intelligence without too much media interference. But this situation is likely to change in a spectacular fashion as soon as Watson starts to bare its teeth… which is exactly what's happening at this very moment. Personally, I would not hesitate for a moment in declaring that a project such as Watson represents one of the greatest human challenges of all time: the invention of a deus ex machina that seems to be approaching the spirit of the famous IBM slogan.

I used to dream about that challenge back in the early '70s, when I was making a series of documentaries on this subject in the USA, for French TV, and writing my book on artificial intelligence.

And I still do, today, more than ever… particularly since scholars such as and Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker have convinced me that we human beings are "merely" a special kind of machine, imbued with a strange property (not yet understood, of course) referred to as consciousness.

ANECDOTE: You might wonder why software engineers at Google and elsewhere have been scanning vast libraries of books of all kinds, and making them freely available to researchers. Are the corporations and engineers doing this because they want to offer more and more reading material, philanthropically, to old-timers such as you and me? Don't be naive! They're building those vast digital libraries for readers of a new kind: future generations of intelligent computers.

BREAKING NEWS: Stephen Wolfram, in his blog [display], seems to believe that IBM's Watson will win the forthcoming Jeopardy TV event. Moreover, he is encouraging IBM… even though their Watson is a competitor of his own approach: the so-called Wolfram-Alpha system.