Thursday

Jun. 15, 2006

Off the Record

by Ronald Wallace

WEDNESDAY, 14 JUNE, 2006
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Poems: "Fast-Pitch" and "Foreseeable" by Paul Bussan from A Rage of Intelligence Poems. © PSB Publishing. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Fast-Pitch

The secret to catching,
Aside from worrying

About the pop-ups
Over your head

Or squibs directly
In front of home plate,

Is to make a fist
Of your free hand

To protect your fingers
From foul tips,

And then look the ball
Right into the mitt

As if the batter
Didn't exist.

Foreseeable

I no longer read obituaries
First thing in the morning,
Nor try to feed myself
With the world's news,
But open up to sports
To find out all the scores
From the day before,
And see if someone
Made a trade
Which helps them now
Or in the coming future.


Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Flag Day in our country: The government officially adopted the Stars and Stripes as our national flag on this day in 1777.


It's the birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe, (books by this author) born in Litchfield, Connecticut (1811). She's famous for writing Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852).


It's the birthday of Polish novelist Jerzy Kosinski, (books by this author) born in Lodz, Poland (1933). He's best known as the author of The Painted Bird (1968).


It was on this day in 1951 that the world's first commercially produced electronic digital computer was unveiled in the United States. It was named as the UNIVAC. The first electronic computers were invented during World War II. Engineers in Great Britain invented the Colossus computer to help break Nazi codes, and engineers in the United States invented the ENIAC, which helped calculate the trajectories of missiles.

The ENIAC weighed thirty tons and occupied a gymnasium. With 18,000 vacuum tubes, it radiated so much heat that industrial cooling fans were needed to keep its circuitry from melting down. It took two days to reprogram it for each new task.

The men who created the ENIAC decided to go into private business for themselves, and it was on this day in 1951 that they unveiled their first product, the UNIVAC, the world's first commercially available electronic computer. It weighed eight tons, used 5,000 vacuum tubes, and cost $250,000. But it could perform 1000 calculations per second, which was the fastest calculation rate in the world at the time.

The first customer to buy the UNIVAC was the United States Census Bureau, and the computer was used to predict the presidential election of 1952, after early returns began to come in. It correctly predicted that Eisenhower would win.

The president of IBM at the time thought that computers, with all their incredibly complex vacuum tubes and circuitry, were too complicated. He said, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." But with the invention of the microchip in 1971, all the processing power of those thousands of vacuum tubes and punch cards could suddenly be crammed into a space the size of a postage stamp. Within a decade, the first personal computers, or PCs, began to appear.

For the first thirty years or so of the history of computers, it was mostly businesses that used them for accounting purposes. But in the 1980s, the word processing powers of computers made them attractive to writers—although Stephen King said that when he first started using a word processor, he lost the ability to pace himself by the number of pages he had written, and his books grew longer and longer. Russell Baker said, "Computers make writing so painless that the writer cannot bear to stop. On and on the writer goes, all judgment numbed. Before you know it, you've written a book." Some contemporary writers still don't use computers. Joyce Carol Oates writes all her first drafts in longhand. Don DeLillo still uses a manual typewriter.

But, the novelist Stanley Elkin called his word processor a "bubble machine." He said, "The word processor enables one to concentrate exponentially; you have absolute command of the entire novel all at once. You can go back and reference and change and fix ... so in a way, all novels written on the bubble machine ought to be perfect novels."


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