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Sunday, January 14, 2018

Univac Document Archive: 1107 COBOL Programmer's Guide Added

I have added the following document to the Univac 1107 section of the Univac Document Archive. This is a PDF of a scanned paper document in my collection. This document is more than fifty years old (published in 1963) and may appear wonky to contemporary eyes: the unjustified typescript text is sometimes misaligned on the page. This is not an artefact of scanning—it's how the document actually appears. Recall that only around 38 Univac 1107s were sold, so documents describing it were produced in small numbers and didn't, in the eyes of Univac, merit the expense of the high production values of contemporary IBM manuals.

When the Univac 1108 was released, the COBOL compiler was modified to exploit the 1108's new instructions, in particular native hardware support for 72-bit double precision floating point arithmetic (the 1107 compiler supported double precision with a different format implemented in software). This compiler, based upon the COBOL-60 standard as revised by COBOL-61, was updated over the years as the COBOL language evolved, and remained the standard Univac 1100 series COBOL until the release of ASCII/ANSI COBOL, which conformed to the ANSI X3.23-1974 COBOL 1974 standard and used the ASCII character set instead of the FIELDATA code employed by the original compiler.

I never used COBOL on the UNIVAC 1107; the machine I used was for research and education at an engineering school, where Algol, Fortran, or assembler were the programming languages of choice. COBOL, which was particularly costly in the drum storage it consumed for the compiler and libraries, was not installed. I did, however, obtain a copy of the COBOL Programmer's Guide, which was scanned to produce this on-line document. Having learned Algol and Fortran, my much younger self thought the idea of programming a computer by writing wordy English prose particularly stupid, although there were some innovative and interesting ideas about defining and manipulating data structures which would, in time, find their way into other programming languages such as PL/I, Pascal, and C.

As usual, my instinct for mis-reading the technology market and the desires of customers was uncanny. By 1970, COBOL was the most widely used programming language in the world, with tens of millions of lines of word salad being spewed into mainframes around the world, some of it still in use today. Nobody writes new COBOL programs today (well, nobody saneI wrote one in 2012), but many people remain involved in maintenance of legacy COBOL programs, and trawling through vast snowdrifts of COBOL looking for two-digit year representations accounted for much of the billions spent in the Y2K panic of the late 1990s.

As with many systems programmers, I never managed to completely avoid COBOL during my career. I spent a summer working on a translator from Burroughs COBOL, which allowed Algol-type expressions everywhere, to Univac 1108 COBOL which was the descendant of that described in this manual. Years later, I resolved a crisis in a mission-critical COBOL program which was missing its deadlines, by changing one statement which made it run more than a hundred times faster (it was writing data to disc one tiny record at a time: I simply made it write buffers containing many records).

Posted at 14:21 Permalink

Friday, January 12, 2018

Reading List: An Inconvenient Presidency

Hamilton, Eric M. An Inconvenient Presidency. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2016. ISBN 978-1-5368-7363-4.
This novella (89 pages in the Kindle edition) is a delightful romp into alternative history and the multiverse. Al Gore was elected president in 2000 and immediately informed of a capability so secret he had never been told of it, even as Vice President. He was handed a gadget, the METTA, which allowed a limited kind of time travel. Should he, or the country, find itself in a catastrophic and seemingly unrecoverable situation, he could press its red button and be mentally transported back in time to a reset point, set just after his election, to give it another try. But, after the reset, he would retain all of his knowledge of the events which preceded it.

Haven't you imagined going back in time and explaining to your younger self all of the things you've learned by trial and error and attendant bruises throughout your life? The shadowy Government Apperception Liberation Authority—GALA—has endowed presidents with this capability. This seems so bizarre the new president Gore pays little attention to it. But when an unanticipated and almost unimaginable event occurs, he presses the button.


Well, we won't let that happen! And it doesn't, but something else does: reset. This job isn't as easy as it appeared: reset, reset, reset.

We've often joked about the “Gore Effect”: the correlation between unseasonably cold weather and Al Gore's appearance to promote his nostrums of “anthropogenic global warming”. Here, Al Gore begins to think there is a greater Gore Effect: that regardless of what he does and what he learns from previous experience and a myriad of disasters, something always goes wrong with catastrophic consequences.

Can he escape this loop? Who are the mysterious people behind GALA? He is determined to find out, and he has plenty of opportunities to try: ~KRRZKT~.

You will be amazed at how the author brings this tale to a conclusion. Throughout, everything was not as it seemed, but in the last few pages, well golly! Unusually for a self-published work, there are no typographical or grammatical errors which my compulsive copy-editor hindbrain detected. The author does not only spin a fine yarn, but respects his audience enough to perfect his work before presenting it to them: this is rare, and I respect and applaud that. Despite Al Gore and other U.S. political figures appearing in the story, there is no particular political tilt to the narrative: the goal is fun, and it is superbly achieved.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 01:48 Permalink

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Reading List: The Red Cliffs of Zerhoun

Bracken, Matthew. The Red Cliffs of Zerhoun. Orange Park, FL: Steelcutter Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-0-9728310-5-5.
We first met Dan Kilmer in Castigo Cay (February 2014), where the retired U.S. Marine sniper (I tread cautiously on the terminology: some members of the Corps say there's no such thing as a “former Marine” and, perhaps, neither is there a “former sniper”) had to rescue his girlfriend from villains in the Caribbean. The novel is set in a world where the U.S. is deteriorating into chaos and the malevolent forces suppressed by civilisation have begun to assert their power on the high seas.

As this novel begins, things have progressed, and not for the better. The United States has fractured into warring provinces as described in the author's “Enemies” trilogy. Japan and China are in wreckage after the global economic crash. Much of Europe is embroiled in civil wars between the indigenous population and inbred medieval barbarian invaders imported by well-meaning politicians or allowed to land upon their shores or surge across their borders by the millions. The reaction to this varies widely depending upon the culture and history of the countries invaded. Only those wise enough to have said “no” in time have been spared.

But even they are not immune to predation. The plague of Islamic pirates on the high seas and slave raiders plundering the coasts of Europe was brought to an end only by the navies of Christendom putting down the corsairs' primitive fleets. But with Europe having collapsed economically, drawn down its defence capability to almost nothing, and daring not even to speak the word “Christendom” for fear of offending its savage invaders, the pirates are again in ascendence, this time flying the black flag of jihad instead of the Jolly Roger.

When seventy young girls are kidnapped into sex slavery from a girls' school in Ireland by Islamic pirates and offered for auction to the highest bidder among their co-religionists, a group of those kind of hard men who say things like “This will not stand”, including a retired British SAS colonel and a former Provisional IRA combatant (are either ever “retired” or “former”?) join forces, not to deploy a military-grade fully-automatic hashtag, but to get the girls back by whatever means are required.

Due to exigent circumstances, Dan Kilmer's 18 metre steel-hulled schooner, moored in a small port in western Ireland to peddle diesel fuel he's smuggled in from a cache in Greenland, becomes one of those means. Kilmer thinks the rescue plan to be folly, but agrees to transport the assault team to their rendezvous point in return for payment for him and his crew in gold.

It's said that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. In this case, the plan doesn't even get close to that point. Improvisation, leaders emerging in the midst of crisis, and people rising to the occasion dominate the story. There are heroes, but not superheroes—instead people who do what is required in the circumstances in which they find themselves. It is an inspiring story.

This book has an average review rating of 4.9 on Amazon, but you're probably hearing of it here for the first time. Why? Because it presents an accurate view of the centuries-old history of Islamic slave raiding and trading, and the reality that the only way this predation upon civilisation can be suppressed is by civilised people putting it down in with violence commensurate to its assault upon what we hold most precious.

The author's command of weapons and tactics is encyclopedic, and the novel is consequently not just thrilling but authentic. And, dare I say, inspiring.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 01:40 Permalink