The science of the waltz

According to the website, the 11th of May 1812 was the day that the waltz was first introduced into English ballrooms. Of course this date does not represent the first performance of the popular dance form known as the waltz – it originated much much earlier, around the 16th century, to be exact.

The waltz must be one of the most stylish and graceful of the classic ballroom dance styles. (© All Rights Reserved)
The waltz must be one of the most stylish and graceful of the classic ballroom dance styles.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Initially a vigorous peasant dance with wild, wide steps, the waltz became more ‘proper’ and elegant as it was introduced to higher society. The hopping action in the country waltzes became a sliding step, and the dance involved an elegant gliding rotation. Early waltzes were defined more by the gliding rotation than the 3/4 beat. Over time, however, the waltz became the dance we know and love today, based essentially on the Viennese waltzes of the late 18th century. In contemporary ballroom dancing, the fast version of the waltz is referred to as the ‘Viennese waltz’.

Being a dance based on a ‘closed’ dance position, the waltz was considered quite shocking and even immoral when it was first introduced. Hard to imagine when you consider how proper and subdued a waltz seems these days, compared to some modern dance forms – it isn’t exactly ‘dirty dancing’!

Now in case you’re wondering what the scientific significance of the waltz is, I’d have to concede I haven’t been able to find ‘the science of the waltz’. But, I did find information about a computer scientist called David Waltz, who posed some interesting theories about the increasing role that computers are playing in scientific experiments.

Waltz suggested that computers are not only useful in data collection, but may also start playing increasingly important roles in scientific evaluation and decision making. According to an article published in Science by Waltz and his colleague Bruce Buchanan, “the prospect of using automated systems as assistants holds vast promise as these assistants are becoming not only faster but much broader in their capabilities — more knowledgeable, more creative, and more self-reflective. Human-machine partnering systems that match the tasks to what each partner does best can potentially increase the rate of scientific progress dramatically, in the process revolutionizing the practice of science and changing what scientists need to know.”

Fascinating stuff, but admittedly a tenuous link to the Viennese waltz of a couple of hundred years ago. So for now, let’s just get back to the grace and style of the classic waltz – surely enough reason for celebration in itself.

Celebrating International Shareware Day

Today is a day to celebrate thousands of computer programmers frantically coding away at their latest killer app, who end up essentially giving it away in the hope that someone will show enough appreciation to pay them for it – today, the second Saturday of December, is International Shareware Day.

Celebrating all the programmers coding away at the next useful app.(© All Rights Reserved)
Celebrating all the programmers coding away at the next useful app.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Unlike open source software, ‘shareware’ is a proprietary software model – the author retains ownership of the programme and the code, and often scaled down versions of commercial software applications are released as shareware. While you can use the software without paying, the idea is that if you find it useful, you should pay, or upgrade to the full, non-free version of the software. Some shareware are also only made available for a limited trial period, after which users are expected to pay to continue using it.

Another concept closely related to shareware is ‘freeware’, where the software is made available for free without an expectation of payment, except perhaps for donations to the author.

The first piece of software called ‘freeware’ was PC-Talk, a telecommunications programme created by Andrew Fleugelman in 1982, while the term ‘shareware’ was first used with the programme PC-Write (a word processing tool), released by Bob Wallace in early 1983. So in a way this year effectively represents the 30th anniversary of freeware/shareware.

Very few shareware and freeware downloads are ever paid for, meaning that the chances of sustaining yourself on shareware income remains fairly slim. This is sad, because this mode of software production has resulted in some wonderful software tools being made available to users around the globe – virus protection software, all kinds of computer utilities, and much more. Lack of financial returns also means that many shareware and freeware projects are abandoned, not updated or not supported.

International Shareware Day was created to remind shareware users about the value they have gained through their use of these programmes. And to perhaps inspire them, in the spirit of the upcoming festive season, to send off a few payments to the authors of their favourite shareware apps.

It may not happen, but it’s worth a try…

The day the first computer bug was discovered

OK, so the legend goes like this:

Back in the late 1940s, the US Navy financed the building of an electromechanical computer at Harvard University, called the Harvard Mark II. It was basically a super-fast (for the time) calculating machine, made unique because several calculations such as the reciprocal, square root, logarithm and exponential, were built into the hardware, making execution much faster than on other similar machines of the time. Unlike modern computers, the Mark II was not a stored-program computer. Instead, program instructions were read sequentially from a tape, and then executed.

Anyway, back to the legend…  On this day, back in 1947, while the Harvard Mark II was doing its thing, humming away (as I presume they did), a technician noted an unusual object trapped in one of the computer’s relays. On closer inspection, he found it was a moth. The moth was removed and taped into the computer’s log book. Grace Hopper, computer scientist and US Navy Rear Admiral, saw the moth entry in the logbook, and added the caption, “First actual case of bug being found”. This reference to a computer problem or glitch as a ‘bug’, caught on with other computer scientists, and has been used ever since, together with terms like debugging, etc.

I’ve discovered that I have a computer screen bug – hope it won’t cause serious problems!
(© All Rights Reserved)

Much of the above story is true – there was a moth found in the Harvard Mark II, on 9 September 1947 at 15:45. And it was indeed taped into the log book, with the above-noted caption. However, this was far from the first use of the word ‘bug’ to refer to a technical error – small machine glitches have been called ‘bugs’ for many years, with the first known reference coming from a letter written by Thomas Edison in 1878:
“Bugs – as such little faults and difficulties are called – show themselves and months of intense watching, study and labour are requisite before commercial success or failure is certainly reached.”

So, while it would have been cool if this was the real origin of the term computer bug, it sadly wasn’t. What is probably true about the story of Grace Hopper and the Harvard Mark II, is that this may indeed be the first known case of an actual computer bug, or computer moth, to be more exact. Which is still kind of amusing. 🙂

Happy Sunday, everyone – hope you’re not being bugged by bugs of any kind todayyy.y..yy…yyyyy.yy. Bugger…