5.0143 Bug (1/85)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Thu, 13 Jun 91 17:25:26 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 5, No. 0143. Thursday, 13 Jun 1991.

Date: Wed, 12 Jun 91 11:36:52 -0500
From: Alan D Corre <corre@convex.csd.uwm.edu>
Subject: Letter to Virginia

Dear Virginia:

You asked me if the original "bug" was really a moth, now
deceased and lying in a glass tomb in Washington D.C. Well, let
me answer you by telling you how I heard that story from the lips
of the bug lady herself. I had read that she was going to speak
at Marquette University, and decided that I would go to hear her,
first because as the inventor of COBOL she just had to be
talkative, and second, because a few years before, the university
authorities had refused to allow Allen Ginsberg to speak on
campus even though the students had invited him, so they had to
have great taste.

I got to the hall just as a black, shiny, US Navy limousine
pulled up outside. A young seaman jumped out, opened the door and
Commodore Grace Hopper got out. She appeared to be in her
eighties, the oldest officer on active duty in the Navy, but was
very upright and agile. She smiled graciously to the crowd of
students milling around outside, and briskly walked in. I
followed, and was surprised to find the large theater packed.
There was not a seat to be had, and people were standing in the
aisles. The commodore mounted the stage right on time, and began
to poke fun at our wonderful navy! She told us how difficult it
was to be a woman in the navy in the forties, and how outrageous
she had been in trying to get her way with the old fuddy-duddies
who had never wanted to see women in the navy in the first place.
And no one walked in and arrested her for lese-majeste. What a
wonderful country we live in, Virginia, where you can make fun of
the most cherished institutions with the full support of the
Supreme Court! Why, you can even make fun of the Vice-President
just because he has been through our educational system and so
believes that Minneapolis is the capital of Wisconsin!

She told us wonderful stories of the old days. How they did
calculations by connecting up wires. How they hired students to
run up and down inside the computer (that's right, Virginia,
inside) with a basket of tubes under their arms, changing them as
they burned out. And then there was the story of the check book.
Commodore Grace was a very organized person, and balanced her
check book religiously each month as soon as she received her
statement. One day it just wouldn't balance. Frustrated she gave
up, and asked her brother (who happened to be an accountant) to
find out what was wrong. He came up with the answer. At one point
in the month she had started to keep her balance using octal
arithmetic! (I guess she hadn't bought any 99-cent items that
month.) Octal arithmetic for computer scientists is a bit like
Old Church Slavonic for slavicists; you have to learn it although
everyone has forgotten the reason why. Octal numbers had become
second nature to her, but unfortunately they don't mix well with
decimal numbers.

She explained to us that clocks don't *have* to go clockwise;
just an arbitrary decision like all those navy rules. I knew
about this, because the clock on the ancient Altneu synagogue in
Prague has Hebrew numerals on it, and so goes counterclockwise.
Maybe the creator of the Golem was really a computer scientist; I
have often thought that the Zohar reads like a computer manual.

And finally she told us of the moth. We knew about it of course,
and were on the edge of our seats waiting for the great moment.
She explained how one day the computer started to produce
garbage. People were very careful in those days to get the
program and data right, because you normally had to wait three
weeks to get on to solve a little problem like 4+4=10. Something
had to be wrong. She took off that smart commodore's cap she was
wearing (I guess she wasn't a commodore then, but never mind) and
put on her thinking cap. Something must have got into the
machine, she concluded, and commenced a search. And there it was,
a moth that had given up its life in the interest of adding a new
concept to computer science. "Here's the bug!" she exclaimed, and
the admiring onlookers confirmed her finding. Looking at that
transparently honest face, could you imagine she was making the
story up?

As a souvenir of her visit, she gave each of us a little piece of
colored wire, of the same kind as she had used when in the old
days she would fix her ailing computer or REMOVE BUGS. Those
students (and I too) walked out of the hall proudly carrying the
sacred relics which had been entrusted to them.

Yes, Virginia, there really is a bug. One day I shall take you to
our nation's capital, and you can see it for yourself.

Your loving uncle,