9 September 99
Today is 9/9/99. Ma told me that, at work, everyone was scurrying to
"fix" their personal computers so they won't blow up today. Twits.
Nobody over there is running software or batch programs that
are looking for "99999999" for termination code. Not these days. Not
since many, many moons ago when the computers were coal-fired and
steam-driven... In fact, I think that was even before my time... And
nobody-- I don't care what they said on the TV-- uses 9999-- or
99999 for Julian dates-- in any configuration for a test date. Nobody.
Twenty years ago I ran into a government Medicare
program that looked for the letter "T" to signal End of File condition on their
"trailer" tapes. Medicare hospital providers submitted these
trailers-- thousands of them-- every month. The trailers, all
indicating different services rendered to beneficiaries, each type
of trailer designated by a letter of the alphabet,
had to be processed and attached to Medicare beneficiary records
so that Medicare benefits could be tracked
and benefits remaining calculated. For some reason, Medicare had mandated that
the indicator for the End of File condition should be the words
"THE END" as the first characters of the last record.
Now each trailer record began with a single letter, "A" or "B" or whatever-- there
were a lot of "S" trailers indicating "Service" dates, and "U" trailers
indicating "Uncovered" hospital stays.
Anyway, since each type of trailer had to be processed differently, the
original programming specified that the first character of
each record be read to determine which sub-program would handle the
trailer. And, because this check of the first character was clean
and simple to program, the original programmer just decided that
if the first character was "T," the program was at the end of file and
could quit. Well, that was just fine-- until Medicare forgot
the original program specs and began submitting "T" trailers.
For a while, the Claims Department didn't notice. They just thought
it was interesting that "T" trailers were so rare, and they were
glad that the "U," "V," and "W" trailers "weren't showing up so often."
I think there were
no "T," "U," "V," or "W" records recorded on any Medicare claims for
about two years. Finally someone got suspicious, though, and actually
called Medicare to ask about the trailers.
I'm the programmer who was assigned to the problem. It took me
about 10 minutes to find the "glitch." I thought it was amusing.
My manager thought it was downright funny. Claims and Medicare took a
dimmer view. Inside of twenty minutes I had changed the program so it wouldn't quit until the
whole phrase "THE END" showed up in the record. But then, before
the amended program could be put into production, I had to prove
that the problem didn't exist anymore.
In those days, almost all data processing was done on magnetic tapes.
To test a program for production, a programmer
had to submit a processing request to Operations indicating what
resources needed to be allocated for the test, and how many "scratch tapes"
would be required. If Ops deemed that sufficient resources were
available, and if the test had a high enough priority code, the test
would be scheduled, and the programmer could submit his test: a
deck of JCL cards. Ops "owned" all the "scratch tapes," and the
assignment was entirely up to Ops discretion. Sometimes one had to
wait until "scratch tapes" were available. Ops would mount "scratch tapes"
manually when the test ran.
Medicare trailers were always submitted on 14-inch magnetic tapes,
one each month. Even though there were thousands of trailers, the records themselves were
only 20-100 characters-- bytes long, so a lot fit on one tape. After processing the trailers, Ops got to keep the tapes. They turned
them into "scratch tapes." For purposes of testing the new trailer program,
Medicare sent me a whole stack of trailer tapes.
Because I was the programmer in charge, and I
had to document the testing, I stipulated that Operations return the
tapes to me after processing. This made me very popular in the Programming
Department. After all the testing had been done, I was the lucky
"owner" of 12-- count 'em! 12!-- "scratch tapes." And if you had your
own "scratch tape," well, life was sweet...
And, if you were a good programmer, and you didn't get an 0C7 (data exception),
(or screw something else up)
your programs would run very nicely until they met all the proper End of File conditions,
closed all their files, exited the programs, released all the system resources, and the
"/*" at the end of your JCL deck told the system you were done.
Those were the days... did I ever tell you about the time Ops removed
all the "//*" comment cards from the production decks--
My god. I sound like a senile old programmer. They're going to come
cart me away. I must be more tired than I thought.
I do have too much to do. Two jobs and Projects. Like this:
I wouldn't be surprised if you don't recognize them. They're characters
from the old Blake's 7 BBC series. It was on from 1979 to 1981. I've
been illustrating the online edition of
Aspect of Blake's 7 by James I. Ide. And it has been a most
First of all, I've had to learn how to draw all over again. I was
never really, really good at it to begin with (I'm a much better
calligrapher), but now I have the
option of editing the drawings with the computer. That means that
if I screw a drawing up, I don't have to chuck the whole thing and
begin from scratch (or, more likely, forget the whole thing).
I can scan it into the computer (where it's going anyway) and fix it.
It's difficult trying
to draw/fix lines with a mouse, though... I wish I could afford a tablet...
and a new computer.
Character portraits are pretty easy. I start with color stills, which are
easy to obtain, and I can use the computer to crop and resize the
pictures for dramatic effect. But actually illustrating
the story is another thing entirely. And I may not be up to the
challenge. I don't know if I've got enough imagination. Or talent.
Or technical expertise. (I don't care what everyone thinks: if you
can't draw without a computer, you won't be able to draw with one. All
the technology in the world goes for naught without talent and
technique.) I know what the characters look like, but when the
picture I want to draw exists only in my head, I have the very devil
of a time putting it on paper.
But I have been getting better as I go. I am learning...
Or maybe not.