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November 20, 2014

TBT: When Joy of Tech Was Necessary

SuperGroup Fred White


The cover above of the SuperGroup Association magazine from January, 1985 came to mind here on ThrowBack Thursday. Fred White passed away this week, and it's been a delightful trek down the lane of memories to recall his gusto about the art of technology.

The cover above shows some of that gusto which is not easy to describe. SuperGroup understood the MPE and IMAGE technology of the '80s as well or better than any magazine of the day. But that 3000 publication edited by D. David Brown had a sense of humor and whimsy about it no other publication has been able to eclipse. (Even on my best day as HP Chronicle editor I was only cooking up editorial cartoons about PA-RISC that somebody else would illustrate, and there have been those Ken-Do strips from the NewsWire. But nothing as savvy as what was staged above.)

The players in the little romp were, from left, White, Adager's Alfredo Rego, and Robelle's Bob Green. The photo was a teaser into a great technical paper about a perceived need to acknowledge that databases needed "uncomfortable Procrustean designs... [using] methodologies associated wth normalizing and relating."

Procrustean creditsLike the paper that Eugene Volokh wrote in the following year, the technical report put relational databases in their place -- capable of permitting multiple views of data, but with a steep performance price to pay compared to IMAGE/3000. The article was on the vanguard of unmasking the shortcomings of relational databases of that era, as I read it. Also clever and playful, two words not often associated with technical writing. The paper was authored by more than the three in the picture; Allegro's Stan Sieler and Steve Cooper got credits, as did Leslie Keffer de Rego for editing.

Two of the actors in that photo represented a database that had to be filled out for length, and one that needed to be chopped short. Procrustes would kill travelers by placing them in "beds of various sizes, and when he lighted on a traveler who was tall, he consigned him to one of his short beds, lopping off so much of him as exceeded the length of the stead; but if his guest were short, a long bed was provided him, and his limbs, by help of a machine, were stretched out to its length."

Procrustean summaryIt took great savvy to use a Greek myth to explain how relational databases of that day were no more capable than IMAGE.

This kind of super-wizard comedy was essential to the period when White was spreading his wings. He was a consultant to Adager at the time and sometimes graced the speaker lists on that day's then-crowded user group meeting calendar. At one show in Southern California, held in the halls of the converted Queen Mary, I watched White expound on the exactitude of writing files to tape, an amazing talk that ran more than a quarter-hour over its 90 minutes allotted. White had more to say, too, even as the organizers had to turn over the room.

The 1980s of the HP 3000 were a time when the Joy of Tech was necessary to overcome the growing pains of the 3000's success. Users were outstripping the processing power of the CISC-based systems, and the competing databases of the era needed serious integration skills to maintain their value to their owners. That integration had been wired into the 3000 by the IMAGE work of White and others. Experts like him, Rego, and Green not only wielded the know-how, they made complex topics entertaining. In SuperGroup they found a wry editorial staff which knew how to showcase gusto.

09:15 PM in History, Newsmakers | Permalink

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