What Happened Today, September 21st

 
Programming Error May Have Contributed to Plane Crash
A New York Times article warned against the dangers of trusting computers too completely after an investigation revealed that a programming error may have contributed to the crash of American Airlines Flight 965 in Colombia in December 1995. The pilots apparently selected the first choice of a beacon to guide the plane's autopilot to a landing without checking that it was what they actually wanted. As a result, the plane was directed 100 miles off course, with the devastating result of 159 deaths.

What Happened This Week

 
Microsoft Unveils Improved WebTV
Microsoft Corp. unveils an improved version of WebTV after purchasing the Silicon Valley startup earlier in the year for $425 million -- a price that worked out to $8,500 for each of the company's existing customers. The purchase reflected Microsoft's ongoing effort to create systems that integrate the Internet, preferably using it's Internet Explorer World Wide Web browser. Because many more American families own television sets than own personal computers, the ability to browse the Web, do interactive shopping, or otherwise turn the TV into a network computer could dramatically increase Internet accessibility.
 
RCA Withdraws from the Computer Market
RCA withdraws from the computer market after losing $490 million. RCA, one of the “Seven Dwarfs,” a group that included Honeywell, Control Data Corporation, Univac, Burroughs, NCR, and General Electric, had tried to compete with IBM in the mainframe computer market, but were ultimately unsuccessful. RCA’s Spectra 70/45 computer was launched as a competitor to the IBM 360 and RCA heavily lauded its reliance on monolithic ICs as opposed to the 360’s hybrid SLT modules. The Spectra had some cross-compatibility with 360 instruction sets and software, but the operating systems proved unable to facilitate easy transfer of programs across the two systems. The 360 gained a stranglehold in the market, and in part led to RCA’s, and the other Seven Dwarfs’, demise in the mainframe computer market.
 
James Cooley Born
James Cooley, co-creator of the fast Fourier transform, was born. Working with John Tukey, Cooley in 1965 worked out a vast improvement to a common mathematical algorithm called the Fourier transform. Although the algorithm had been useful in computing, its complexity required too much time. While working at IBM, Cooley built on Tukey's ideas for a swifter version.
Anti-Japanese protests in Beijing, China (September 18, 2012)
Anti-Japanese protests in Beijing, China (September 18, 2012)
 
Beijing Residents Alerted of Anti-Japan Protest Ban via Text Message
With tensions between China and Japan escalating because of a disputed territorial claim over a chain of islands, the Chinese government alerted Beijing residents of a ban on anti-Japan protests via text message. Previous protests had turned violent and resulted in damage, vandalism, and the detainment of a number of protesters. In conjunction with other factors, SMS text messaging appeared to be successful as the delivery mechanism for the citywide announcement. Only small-scale protests were reported in some regions. As citizens grow more dependent on mobile and social media technology for the latest news and alerts, centralized authorities have gained more open access to, and possibly influence of, the general populace’s daily lives.
 
First FORTRAN Program Runs
The first successful FORTRAN program runs. FORTRAN, which is an acronym for "FORmula TRANslator," was invented at IBM by a group led by John Backus. FORTRAN's purpose was to simplify the programming process by allowing the programmer ("coder") to use simple algebra-like expressions when writing software. It also took over the task of keeping track of where instructions were kept in memory--a very laborious and error-prone procedure when undertaken by humans. FORTRAN is still in use today in scientific and engineering applications, making it one of the oldest programming languages still in use (COBOL is another). Backus was named a Computer History Museum Fellow in 1997.
 
RSA Algorithm Patent Is Awarded
The RSA algorithm, one of the world's most widely-used encryption methods, had been developed in 1977. Scientific American columnist Martin Gardner wrote a description of the algorithm in his "Mathematical Games" column, mentioning that readers could send a self-addressed stamped envelope to receive a copy of the MIT technical memorandum describing it. More than three thousand people sent envelopes, though they did not receive their copies of the papers until after the patent was issued six years later due to members of the National Security Agency raising questions about the legality of making the information available.
 
Programming Error May Have Contributed to Plane Crash
A New York Times article warned against the dangers of trusting computers too completely after an investigation revealed that a programming error may have contributed to the crash of American Airlines Flight 965 in Colombia in December 1995. The pilots apparently selected the first choice of a beacon to guide the plane's autopilot to a landing without checking that it was what they actually wanted. As a result, the plane was directed 100 miles off course, with the devastating result of 159 deaths.
 
Computer Code Could Be Copyrighted
In a decisive victory for the makers of a computer's insides, a federal judge ruled that code used to run computers and other electronic devices could be copyrighted like printed material.