Sunday, July 31, 2011

RIP, IBM Cambridge Scientific Center, 1992, and Founder Norman Rasmussen, 2003

The IBM Cambridge Scientific Center (CSC) closed on this date nineteen years ago, July 31, 1992. This tiny facility, far distant from the IBM Research Division HQ and IBM’s major labs, had a profound influence on computer hardware, operating systems, and on the Internet that continues until this very day.

In the past I have published a few notes on the founding of the Center.  Also notes on how and where Bob Creasy came up with his concept of a virtual machine. And I intend to add more about Ed Hendricks and his creation of the network that became known as VNET and its influence on the Internet.

But one fellow who continues to intrigue me is Norman Rasmussen, the founder of the CSC, who started Creasy and Hendricks on the paths to their innovations.

Recently a former CSC staff member, Lynn Wheeler, well known for his work on the CP time sharing algorithms, pointed me to an Obituary for Rasmussen that ran in the Boston Herald some time ago.  This obit is no longer available online, so I am reproducing it there with a couple of minor corrections for technical accuracy, with a tip of my hat to Monica Collins for her good work.

Norman L. Rasmussen, 74, high-tech entrepreneur
by Monica Collins
Thursday, January 30, 2003

Norman Leo Rasmussen of Boston, a computer software innovator who pioneered IBM's first multiple user time-sharing system, died of multiple myeloma Sunday at Brigham and Women's Hospital. He was 74.

Working for IBM from the mid-1960s until the early 1970s, Mr. Rasmussen founded the IBM Cambridge Scientific Center adjacent to the  Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He led and inspired the team that developed the Virtual Machine Operating Systems, which later became an IBM product known as CP/CMS, an early entry allowing multiple users to tap into a single computer mainframe. VM opened the way for cooperative computer programming development.

With his business acumen, scientific expertise, and fiery entrepreneurial spirit, Mr. Rasmussen soared into the brave new world of high-tech.

In 1975, after he left IBM, Mr. Rasmussen was co-founder of GSG Inc., a company that developed applications for various Department of Defense users of Arpanet, a  progenitor of the Internet. From 1980 to 1991, he was president and CEO of Teleprocessing Inc., a company he founded. TPI specialized in communications-based systems integration solutions for private sector organizations.

In 1991, he was recruited to become president and CEO of Softech, Inc., a troubled computer services company. Mr. Rasmussen succeeded in restoring Softech's viability before the company was sold in 1996.

Most recently, Mr. Rasmussen - whose family emigrated from Denmark in 1947 and who spoke three Scandinavian languages - was chairman of the Swedish-based Internet equipment company, Effnet Group AB until he retired in 2001.

Mr. Rasmussen was also a member of the Massachusetts Governor's Advisory Committee on Information Technology from 1984 to 1994.

For those who knew him, however, Mr. Rasmussen was not the starchy scientist. He was an early feminist who worked for social justice and a woman's right to choose. He was active in community affairs and was a familiar figure in his neighborhood, Boston's North End/Waterfront. He served on his condominium association's board of trustees.

Tall and handsome, with ramrod posture and a full head of white hair, Mr. Rasmussen was a well-traveled bon vivant. He frequently traveled to Europe and was multi-lingual. He and his wife, Ellen Parker, spent the 2001 holiday season traveling throughout Southeast Asia.

Yet, all journeys led back to his sailboat and the sea. Mr. Rasmussen was most at home on his sailboat, Galatea, and he spent summers sailing in Penobscot Bay.

Mr. Rasmussen is survived by his wife, Ellen Parker, the executive director of Project Bread; a daughter, Andrea; a son, Nicolas; and a brother, Eyvin.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Happy 47th Birthday, IBM Cambridge Scientific Center

Feb 1. 1964. What became known as the IBM Cambridge Scientific Center (CSC) was born today when IBM’s Norm Rasmussen rented the fourth floor of a newly constructed commercial building at 545 Main Street, behind MIT, just across the tracks from a starch factory.

Here are some of my notes.  Corrections or additions welcome.

MIT’s Project MAC had already leased floors  5, 8, and 9 of the building for professor, staff, and graduate student offices, and for computer rooms.
Here is how I recall the building in the min-1970s.
The first floor contained a restaurant, was it the Tech Square House?  Also there was the Office of Michael  Dertouzos, Chairman of MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS)  and  the LCS Reference Library.
The second floor housed the CSC Computer Room; I was on that floor, as was Fritz Giesin.
The third floor housed clandestine government offices,  the CIA and perhaps others.
The fourth floor was the CSC, laid out similar to the MIT Offices above.
The MIT Floors, 5, 8, and 9 had maybe 60 offices, singles and doubles, wrapped around the elevator core. Almost all the offices had windows: none opened. The air conditioning wasn't enough for the load of people and machines in the building on really hot summer days, and failed every year, forcing them to shut down the computers before they roasted themselves. Fluorescent lights, linoleum floors, hard walls, doors that locked; they were nice offices  (as recalled by Tom Van Vleck).
Other floors had varying tenants at different times. The GE Multics team, the Cambridge Information Systems Laboratory (CISL), had offices on half of the seventh floor.  IBM had some other offices in the building.  The programming group that developed VM/370 was originally housed there.  IBM Fellow Nate Rochester and Jean Sammet were somewhere in the building.

Tech Square was reconstructed in 2001; 545 is now known as 200 Tech Square.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Online Learning vs. Face-to-Face, Who Wins? The Outsourcer.

Expert opinion and cost pressures are shifting education online, according to a thought provoking post in today’s NY Times. Apparently, online learning now beats face-to-face teaching by a modest but statistically meaningful margin.

Pondering this change, by sheer coincidence I received an even more thought provoking post from my classmate Patrick Winston via the MIT Alumni Assn. blog, Slice of MIT. It was written in the first person, is brief, and the post struck me so strongly that I am reproducing it intact, something I have never done before.

Gerry Sussman burst into my office. “You were right!” he said.

“About what?”

“Twenty-five years ago, you said we should get rid of 10% of the faculty and use the money to hire unemployed, English-speaking, Indian PhDs to tutor our students individually over the web.”

“Yes,” I remembered, a little surprised that he remembered.

“Well, it’s happened.”

He had just heard a BBC report on TutorVista, of Banglore, which offers tutoring to kids at $2.50 per hour.

Now for the rest of the story. This year, my subject, 6.034, will join 40 others available from OpenCourseWare with video recording of the lectures. Many more are coming.

When I was a kid, I went to MIT because that was the only way I could have Arthur Mattuck tell me about mathematics; Tony French, about physics; Amar Bose, about circuits; and Gerry Lettvin about what the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain.

But sitting in a lecture hall is no longer a good reason to be at MIT. You can watch today’s analogs of those great lecturers without spending $50,000 a year. In fact, if you can’t afford a computer, you can watch them for nothing at your local library. If you can spare $2.50, you can probably find someone in India to help you through the rough spots.

Of course, there still are plenty of reasons to be physically at MIT; here are a few that come to mind: working problem sets together late at night, the smaller classes, UROP, TEAL, IAP, BattleCode, and the 100K Contest.

Still, I don’t think we at MIT are thinking enough about the future, because, well, here is another prediction: twenty-five years from now there will only be 500 or so English-language lecturers. They will paid like sports stars to develop new material offered up by OpenGooggleWare, along with advertisements. Who knows what the rest of us will be doing. Maybe tutoring Indian students over the web.

I tip my scally cap to classmate Patrick Winston, now Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70,  and I recommend his Pensées to all.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

In Defense of the Infinite Corridor (MIT)

Occasionally I come across challenges to MIT’s Infinite Corridor based on its length compared to other corridors that may or may not exist elsewhere in the same universe. Of course, it is intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer that at a mere 147.491 Smoots from its entrance in building seven to the exit at building eight, the apparent length of the corridor is not very great. After all, the bridge connecting Boston to MIT measures a full 374.4 Smoots +/- one ear.

For a full explanation, I’ll draw on two of my fictional characters, walking the corridor for the first time in 1961, about the time that “IHTFP” became the de facto motto of the undergraduate student body.
“So this is what they call “the Infinite Corridor.” Bill said to me as we walked along the lengthy hallway from Building Seven to Building Fourteen.

“Don’t they also call it something else, Stonehenge or something?”

“ MIT-henge, I think,” he replied.

To the uninitiated, we were walking from MIT’s main entrance on Mass. Ave toward the Hayden Memorial Library. MIT people communicated largely in numbers: buildings, courses, departments, were all identified that way.

The Infinite Corridor is the hallway, 251 meters (825 feet, 0.16 miles) long, that runs through the main buildings of MIT. This corridor, which at its midpoint passes directly under the Great Dome, serves as the most direct indoor route between the east and west ends of the campus.

As for MIT-henge, on several days each year, the sun sets in alignment with the Infinite Corridor and shines along its entire length. "MIT-henge" is a reference to Stonehenge's alignment with the sun. This occurs on several days around January 31 and November 11.

Myself, I never considered it “Infinite” because of its length, as that would define infinity as linear, and we all know that, like our life stories, infinity always turns back upon itself. It was actually one of four to nine connecting corridors, one on each floor. Intersecting on each level were U-shaped corridors bending back to their start. Staircases stood in each intersection. Every serious physics student is familiar with the Möbius Strip, a model of infinity that can easily be created by taking a paper strip and giving it a half-twist, and then joining the ends of the strip together to form a loop. M. C. Escher has a famous example, “Möbius Strip II”, featuring ants crawling endlessly around the surface of one. Add his “Ascending and Descending” to represent the staircases and you have a well decorated dorm room. Escher’s prints were popular items at our bookstore, “The MIT COOP.”

These corridors and stairways of MIT, with pipes exposed overhead and radiation and electrical warnings on many doors, were all painted a drab grey-green, giving MIT an industrial era appearance contrasting starkly with the classical architecture of Harvard and Wellesley. Some of my classmates would dream they were lost forever in this maze. My nightmare was that the corridors were bones, and that the buildings had decayed away, leaving only the rib cage of a vast evil leviathan to bleach on the muddy shores of the Charles. And rumors persist that on moonless nights you may still encounter the ghost of Claude Shannon on his unicycle, juggling as he propels himself through the maze.

You might note that today MIT has many new buildings on campus, many connecting with the original network of corridors. But remember, if the corridor is already infinite, adding all those new connections doesn’t increase the length at all.

You can find an interactive map of the current MIT campus here.

The explanation above is drawn from “Killer App –A Murder at MIT,” my novel in progress.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

MIT and India Build a Global Force in IT

I never once suspected how large a role MIT played in building India into the force it is today in the global IT industry, despite my having attended many meetings stressing the symbiotic relationship between MIT and Entrepreneurship. Recently, Professor Ed Roberts described the significant contributions to the US economy made by foreign students who attended MIT and subsequently started companies here. Then I received the following invitation to a lecture at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA:

“In the last fifteen years the very names Bangalore and Silicon Valley have become evocative of the important connections between India and the United States in the global IT industry. Historian Ross Bassett argues that the linkages between the two countries are far older and deeper than is widely known. In the course of his research, he found that Indian graduates of MIT, to a remarkable extent, significantly influenced the creation of modern technological India. In the colonial period, a small group of Indians, including some associated with Gandhi, went to MIT as an anti-colonial act and as a way to develop technological capabilities for India. Indian graduates of MIT played a key role in the founding of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), and in the years after 1947, were central figures in the Indian steel industry, the atomic program, and the space program. The Indian IT industry today is to an astounding degree the product of Indian graduates of MIT. Since 1965, Indian graduates of MIT and graduates of MIT once removed---that is graduates of the IITs---have also played an increasingly important role in American technology and computing.”

Alas, I won’t be able to attend this lecture, which is being held on Thursday, July 15. The Museum runs a variety of intellectually stimulating events such as this one. At the very least, I would recommend you visit their web site and subscribe to their electronic newsletter. Having been one of the founders of the original Digital Computer Museum, located here in Boston on Museum Wharf, it continues to sadden me that it moved to California. You can view a video describing the origin and goals of the museum here.

One museum function that I did attend was celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the IBM System/360. That night’s entire program can also be seen on video, although they stopped filming just as Bill Worthington and I joined Gene Amdahl, Fred Brooks, and many other members of the original team cutting the birthday cake.

Now about that outsourcing............

The iPad's Impact On Other Devices

Resolve Market Research has just completed a comprehensive study that looks at how the iPad is being used, and how the iPad is impacting other technology devices like e-readers, portable gaming consoles and netbooks. You can read more about it here.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week 100

Yesterday, I wrote that Joe Caruso was hoping to recruit 100 thought leaders for a Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week  (BREW) to be held the week of Oct. 12, 2010. Joe was concerned that time was short to plan and organize this event.

Joe just got his 100th member, just 24 hours after he asked. It is quite an impressive group. Opinion leader or not, you can join the group here. Should that fail, go to Linkedin and look up “Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.”

I tip my straw hat to Joe Caruso and his 100 BREW volunteers.