Bits from its

Sometime in the early 1980s my friend Greg Chaitin decided to go digital. He wanted to have all of his own writings, along with some other documents he particularly valued, ready at hand in machine-readable form. This was long before Postscript or PDF; scanners and OCR were exotic technology. So Greg hired a typist. I know about all this because he sent me a printout of his digitized oeuvre—an impressively thick sheaf of fanfold paper, with sprocket strips still attached. (The irony of this mode of distribution was not lost on either of us.)

I’m finally trying to catch up with Greg. Instead of hiring a typist, though, I’ve bought a cute little document scanner, which has been busily transforming heaps of moldering cellulose into shiny new bits. The scanner produces PDFs, which then run through an OCR program to build an index, making the page images searchable. (Bring on the Googlebot!) The result falls short of ideal—files are obese, graphics are low-res, there’s no opportunity to edit or reformat—but still it’s better than rummaging through cobwebby filing cabinets in my basement. And I don’t have to FedEx cartons of fanfold to my friends.

I’ll be adding links to my publications list as I upload the files. Here are a few teasers:

The HP-41C: A Literate Calculator? Byte, January 1981, pages 118-138. PDF (3.3 MB)

40,000 Points of Light. Pixel, Vol. 1, No. 2, May-June 1990, pages 36-41. [On a graphics language in which an image is defined as a locus of points.] PDF (2.4 MB)

Rank-and-File Thinking. Lotus, June 1985, pages 73-77. PDF (1.8 MB)

Theory & Practice: On the bathtub algorithm for dot-matrix holograms. Computer Language, October 1986, pages 21-32. [On patterns generated by severely oversampled signals.] PDF (4.6 MB)

The Information Age: The Numbering Crisis in World Zone 1. The Sciences, Vol. 32, No. 6, November-December 1992, pages 12-15. [On the impending shortage of telephone numbers.] PDF (1.8 MB)

I note for the record that every one of the publications mentioned in the list above is now defunct. I wonder if there’s any significance in that?

This entry was posted in computing, modern life.

4 Responses to Bits from its

  1. Hi…
    Thanks a lot for sharing those, it’s always enlightening to read articles from decades ago.
    To be honest, I did not expect much from the OCR, but it has done a great job; with the exception of compound fi letters and such (which is understandable), it has captured the text accurately it appears.
    And I found the Ads in page 28 of the “Computer Language” especially amusing:
    NEW! Full spectrum of general-purpose utility
    functions; windows that can be stacked, re
    moved, and accept user input;’
    Thanks again.

  2. Doug Burkett says:

    Thanks for posting your articles. I particularly liked the HP41C article; I used to own a couple of those and used them a great deal for work & play.

    Your comment in that article that the numeric precision is ‘inadequate’ at 10 decimal digits, no guard digits, is true albeit somewhat subjective. Still, tens of thousands of 41C owners still did a lot of useful work with that machine. Just 8 digits is more than enough for most engineering calculations, even today. I of course exclude calculations requiring matrix math or solving families of differential equations.

    Another way to look at the 41C is as an extremely powerful, programmable slide rule replacement. Again, 8 digits far exceeds the 3-4 digit capability of the slide rule.

    I suspect the 41C even stood up well compared to other personal calculation solutions of that time.

    I don’t mean to be too picky about an article you wrote over twenty years ago, but it is worth considering what was available to scientists and engineers at that time, at the cost of the 41C. Today we’re spoiled. For ‘hand’ calculations I use a TI Voyage 200, with a numerical precision of 14 digits, guard digits, and 640-digit exact arithmetic. Needless to say, I would not go back to my 41C.

  3. brian says:

    @Doug Burkett:
    It was a very long time ago. All I can say at this point is that if I seem overly critical of the dear old HP-41C, I never found a similar device that I liked nearly as well. You say you wouldn’t go back to your 41C. I’d be happy to go back to mine, if I could, but it finally expired a couple of years ago (after more than 25 years of faithful service).

  4. Chris says:

    It’s been many years since I have seen one of these, oh what I would give to have my 41c back.