Foreign languages

August 29th, 2016 10:13 AM
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In my freshman year at a predominantly male tech college, our glee club trekked to a liberal arts women's college for a joint concert. As the two choirs mingled, our high school experiences and summer travels still fresh in our minds, I overheard a young woman ask one of my classmates, "What languages do you know?"

Unabashedly, he answered, "Oh — C, C++, Java…"

He was being utterly sincere and unironic: even if he didn't suss that his ladyfriend was more interested in tongues than code, his enthusiasm for computer programming was something he was eager to share.

Since starting college and discovering the world doesn't run on BASIC, I've not shared my classmate's confidence. I approach programming with an understanding of the fundamentals but with uncertainty that what I input will result in the desired output. I've not learned many language since my first seven:

Last week introduced me to a situation I'd never before been in: speaking French to a native French speaker. I've never learned any of the Romance languages, leaving me sure of only my ability to mangle them. For several minutes before launching Skype, I rehearsed: "Bonjour. Parlez-vous anglais?" I realized a person would be more forgiving than a computer, but I was still uncertain of the output: what if the answer was "Non"? Would I, like a nervous 9-year-old, hang up the phone?

Paris 2013 - Eiffel Tower
I found the whole prospect intimidating.

Hesitating for several moments, I finally dialed. The other end picked up and greeted me in French — words that came so swiftly and surely that I found them incomprehensible and intimidating. I nonetheless steeled myself and in my best American accent responded: "Bonjour. Parlez-vous anglais?"

There was a moment's silence, during which I imagined a computer terminal processing my command before deciding whether to accept it or return with a syntax error. Then, much to my relief, I heard the sound of a successful reboot into a more familiar environment: "Yes, sir. How may I help you?"

Whether it's FORTH or French, I doubt I'll ever be as fluent with a foreign language as my college classmate was, or that I'll be able to speak to someone in or about other languages with the confidence he did. But perhaps, as with my attempt to major in computer science, my grasp of the fundamentals will be enough to get me by.

Keeping Stanford's football statistics

January 12th, 2015 10:34 AM
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Stanford University's athletics department recently produced a piece of investigative journalism that I'm jealous didn't appear in Juiced.GS. By focusing on a niche intersection of industries, author David Kiefer has made a bold claim: the Apple II was the first computer used to track football statistics.

In 1980, Stanford football statistician Ken Lorell was seeking a solution to a problem, and the result was a revolutionary way of keeping stats … on a computer. This had never been done before.

Apple Computer was founded in 1976 and a year later released the Apple II, the first successful mass-produced microcomputer. Lorell saw the computer’s value in statkeeping, especially as offenses became more complex — with passing attacks becoming more sophisticated and the run and shoot opening up the world of hurry-up attacks.

After the 1979 season, Lorell approached the Stanford athletic department about the idea of purchasing a personal computer for statistical purposes. It was a tough sell, especially because the Apple II was originally retailing for $1,298 with 4 KB of RAM, and $2,638 for the maximum 48 KB.

Lorell nonetheless got the funding and had the machine up and running in time for the next season. But a minor hardware glitch would delay its successful debut.

On Sept. 6, 1980, it was ready for a trial run. Stanford opened at Oregon and Lorell and the Cardinal stat crew gathered at Lorell's Palo Alto home. The team would assemble the stats as if it were a home game, with some of the crew acting as spotters while watching on television. The television was used for visuals only while the sound and descriptions were created by the radio commentary of Don Klein and Bob Murphy.

All was well until someone tripped over the power cord. The data for the entire first half was lost.

Fortunately, one of the crew had kept the play-by-play on paper as a backup. Because the stats did not have to be compiled in order, the data was reconstructed by the end of halftime. Later, the Oregon stats were discovered to have an error. The computerized stats were more accurate.

"We did it," Lorell said. "We were so happy this thing worked."

Computerized stats made their official debut on Sept. 13, 1980, in Stanford’s 19–13 victory over visiting Tulane. And they’ve been there ever since.

This means that the Apple II appeared in football well before football appeared on the Apple II — the popular John Madden video game franchise, which continues to this day, didn't debut until 1988.

Nor was this the last appearance of the Apple II at Stanford University. Not only did the school once offer a course called "History of Computer Game Design", which perforce includes the Apple II, but Apple co-founder Steve Jobs famously delivered their 2005 commencement speech.

But where has the Apple II been at Stanford since then — specifically, the one that made this groundbreaking appearance in sports statistics?

As for the Apple II, Lorell had to return it to the Stanford athletic department. No telling if it still exists.

"It literally is a museum piece," said Lorell, 70, who is now retired. "It is one of the historic, iconic products from the early days of Silicon Valley. The iPhones we have in our pockets are a thousand times more powerful."

At the time, it was a revolution that Lorell and Stanford played a role in. It may not be told in the annals of Silicon Valley innovation, but it remains an achievement with a lasting legacy – in every football stadium in the country.