Stowe writes in Accentus: Real Time Blinking Through Music some nice remarks about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Blink, and “our ability to ‘thin-slice’ the world around us: to rapidly make judgements at an intuitive, almost instantaneous level”. In this context, Stowe refers to a recent Wired article on Accentus, which assists traders with auditory snapshots of live market data.
Stowe then adds
Years ago, when I was a researcher, I could could tell if my compiling of a program had been successful or not by the noise that the Unix hard drive made. Our ability to make sense of subtle auditory feedback cues will be a huge area of growth over the next few years.
In fact, ‘detecting successful compilation via sound’ is a fantastic phenomenon, and definitely for real. As luck would have it, there’s a story about this very phenomenon that was sent to me when I was collecting the data for a paper that eventually became: Eisenstadt, M. “My hairiest bug” war stories. Comm. ACM 40 (4), Apr. 1997. [HTML version; Word version.]. The full stories, available via ftp in this appendix, included this fantastic one from someone whom I chose to call U27 (the 27th respondent via Usenet, as it turns out). Below is his story in full, with bold emphasis added by me:
Here’s a debugging tale from the old days.
In 1970, the same semester when campuses all over the US were erupting
due to Kent State, I took my first computer course. It was conducted on
an extremely primitive mainframe: an IBM 1401 with 8K (sic) of memory,
no magnetic media, punched cards only, at Roosevelt University in
The math professor who taught the class was good. He introduced
computer science in a “genetic” way, showing us first the miseries of
machine language, then the slight lessening of misery encountered on the
switch to assembler. But when he wanted to proceed to FORTRAN and the
glories of high-level language he was stymied, for the compiler failed.
He ended up directing us to an IBM service bureau to do FORTRAN.
A year or so later, I was a programmer in the university computer
center. I chanced upon the FORTRAN compiler. It was a deck of cards
in a drawer. When I keyed in a simple FORTRAN program, of course the
compiler failed in exactly the same way.
However, I happened to have a copy, at that time, of John A. N. Lee’s
book, The Anatomy of a Compiler. This had some details on 1401 FORTRAN
in an appendix and so served as an introduction to the mysteries of this
I discovered a subroutine in the compiler deck…to do multiplication
and division. This was puzzling, for although hardware multiply and
divide were extra cost on the 1401, I knew from actual experience that
we had these features. It dawned on me, however, that this was very
possibly why the compiler failed, for Lee’s book specified that the 1401
Fortran compiler required at least 8K of memory. I removed the
subroutine and replaced calls by hardware opcodes, and the compiler
successfully ran my code.
Whenever a FORTRAN program compiled successfully, it printed out the
object code (actually code for an interpreted FORTRAN machine) on our
line printer in a peculiarly compelling rythymic pattern. The operators
and I had a little dance to go with this pattern, which became known as
the “successful compiler dance.” Since I was a long-haired punk kid (in
1970) and since this computer was in a glass box visible to the public,
our compiler-dance was strange, to say the least.
A debugging story from the ancient history of computing!
Technorati Tags: auditory, debugging, blink