February 28th, 2007


plus ca change

A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk by one of the guys who built SABRE, back in 1962. Back in those days, if one of the architects wanted a cherry flavor subroutine instead of vanilla, he called down to a team of programmers in the basement who'd write it for you -- sort of a human Standard Template Library. The guy who was speaking -- one of the very few left from that project -- was one of those, so he didn't have the broad insights. But there were some interesting tidbits, like that the six-digit record locators the airlines still use are that way because 6 uppercase alphanumeric characters will fit into a 36-bit word on an IBM 7090 mainframe.

One thing I'd read and which he corroborated was that the tendency to late hours among hackers in the early days was driven, or maybe just reinforced, by the fact that if you wanted to get any system resources you had to wait until the middle of the night. Nowadays we have tons of system resources, but during the day the codebase here moves so quickly you can't get in a test run between checkins. As a consequence of this, sometimes the tests break. I find myself under the same pressure, 45 years later, as I wait for a checkin to fix the latest broken test so I can get my own change in before tag.