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September 10 is International Creepy Boston Dynamics Horse Day

Today is International Creepy Boston Dynamics Horse Day. On September 10, 2012, Boston Dynamics released footage of a rough-terrain robot it developed with funding from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Marine Corps.

The robot’s official name is The Legged Squad Support System (LS3). Its sensors allow it to follow a human leader while avoiding obstacles. It carries up to 400 pounds and travels 20 miles before it requires refueling.

It is an impressive feat of engineering. There is also a nightmarish quality to its movement. Check it out:

Happy International Creepy Boston Dynamics Horse Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

September 9 is Tester’s Day

Today is Tester’s Day. This unofficial holiday for technicians everywhere is not without controversy.

The Story

On September 9, 1945, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist at Harvard University, was running tests on the Mark II Calculator (designed by Howard Aiken) when she found a moth that had landed between two solenoid contacts, shorting out an electromechanical relay.

Hopper removed the squashed bug—no one knows if she dispatched it herself—and taped it to the project’s logbook with the notation: “First actual case of bug being found.” Hopper had carried out the first “debugging” and coined the term that would become synonymous with the identification and elimination of the frustrating glitches that cause computers to malfunction.

Tester's Day

Flies in the Ointment

This story doesn’t pass muster for a few reasons.

1. The Mark II came online in 1947, two years later. That’s easy enough to explain: looking at the photo of the logbook, anyone can see that the time and date are included, but not the year. Fix that and the story’s hunky dory, right? Not really.

2. Hopper’s own description indicates that she didn’t invent the usage of “bug.” “First actual case of bug” [emphasis ours] implies that the term was already in use in a figurative sense. Nitpicky? Perhaps. The usage can be traced back at least as far as 1878, when Thomas Edison used the word in a letter to Theodore Puskas, a fellow inventor.

“‘Bugs’ — as such little faults and difficulties are called — show themselves and months of intense watching, study and labor are requisite before commercial success or failure is certainly reached.”

The meaning was also included in Webster’s Second International Dictionary, published in 1934. Okay, maybe Hopper wasn’t the first person to call a glitch a “bug.” But didn’t she find that moth, whether it was in 1945 or 1947? Probably not.

3. In 2007, the Smithsonian Institution honored the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the bug. Curator Peggy Kidwell, who included the logbook page in the exhibit, noticed that the notation wasn’t made in Hopper’s handwriting.

Ingrid Newkirk, director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), objected to the display, urging people not to use animals’ names as pejoratives, stating:

“We discourage people from saying things like ‘kill two birds with one stone.’ The manner in which we’ve been taught to think of animals is mostly negative. We need to be more respectful.”

PETA is concerned about the defamation of insects, an important part of our ecosystem. So Newkirk is essentially telling the Smithsonian, “You give bugs a bad name.” We imagine her leaving the museum to deliver a speech touting all the good things about, say, hookworms. They probably don’t get enough good press.

Amazing Grace

In our opinion, none of the nonsense above detracts from the accomplishments of Grace Hopper. In 1943, she left her job teaching mathematics at Vassar College to join the Navy. She was turned down but was admitted to the Naval Reserve after receiving special permission: She weighed 15 pounds less than the Navy’s 120-pound minimum.

After the war, she helped program the Mark I, predecessor to the Mark II of bug fame. She co-authored three papers about the computer, also known as the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, with designer Howard Aiken.

She later joined the group building the UNIVAC I. In 1952, she invented the first compiler, for use with the A-O computer language, but had difficulty convincing anyone it would work. “I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it,” she said later.”They told me computers could only do arithmetic.” Ultimately she prevailed and was given her own team, which produced programming languages MATH-MATIC and FLOW-MATIC.

In 1959, Hopper served as a technical consultant to the committee that defined the new language COmmon Business-Oriented Language (COBOL). Her conviction that programs should be written in a language resembling English, rather than machine code, helped COBOL go on to be the most-used business language in history.

image of Grace Hopper

In 1967, she was named the director of the Navy Programming Languages Group, developing software and a compiler as part of the COBOL standardization program for the entire Navy.

She reached the rank of Rear Admiral in 1985. The following year, she was forced to retire after having remained on active duty many years beyond mandatory retirement age by special permission of Congress. At a ceremony held on the USS Constitution, Hopper received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-combat-related honor awarded by the Department of Defense.

She also wrote several programming books and lectured until her death on January 1, 1992, at the age of 85. She was buried with full military honors at Arlington Cemetery. The Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyer USS Hopper (DDG-70) is named for her, as is the Cray XE6 “Hopper” supercomputer at The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center.

She once said:

“The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back ’em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ’em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances.”

Thank you, Grace. We don’t give a hoot whether you found that silly—sorry, PETA, we mean noble—bug or not!

Update

In 1933, Yale University named a residential college after John C. Calhoun, an 1804 graduate who was an enthusiastic supporter of slavery. In 2017, after years of pressure, protests and vandalism of artwork depicting slaves,  the university changed the name from Calhoun to Grace Hopper College. (She earned her Ph.D. in mathematics at Yale in 1934.) Although it has nothing to do with Tester’s Day, we mention it because it brings attention to Hopper’s accomplishments.

Happy Tester’s Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

 

September 8 is Pardon Day

Today is Pardon Day. On September 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford issued a controversial pardon to Richard Nixon, who had resigned on August 9, 1974 (a.k.a. National Veep Day.) What follows is an excerpt. Read the full proclamation here.

As a result of certain acts or omissions occurring before his resignation from the Office of President, Richard Nixon has become liable to possible indictment and trial for offenses against the United States. Whether or not he shall be so prosecuted depends on findings of the appropriate grand jury and on the discretion of the authorized prosecutor. Should an indictment ensue, the accused shall then be entitled to a fair trial by an impartial jury, as guaranteed to every individual by the Constitution.

It is believed that a trial of Richard Nixon, if it became necessary, could not fairly begin until a year or more has elapsed. In the meantime, the tranquility to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks could be irreparably lost by the prospects of bringing to trial a former President of the United States. The prospects of such trial will cause prolonged and divisive debate over the propriety of exposing to further punishment and degradation a man who has already paid the unprecedented penalty of relinquishing the highest elective office of the United States.

Now, THEREFORE, I, GERALD R. FORD, President of the United States, pursuant to the pardon power conferred upon me by Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, have granted and by these presents do grant a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974.

Pardon Day

Gerald R. Ford

The scandal leading up to Nixon’s resignation came to be known as “Watergate” because of the first crime officially attributed to Nixon’s “dirty tricks” campaign. On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington DC, placing wiretaps and stealing records. (An earlier break-in, in May 1972, had been successful but the audio quality of the bugs was considered unacceptable, necessitating another trip.) The burglars were carrying cash from the campaign fund. Two more men were later indicted in the case.

On July 16, 1973, White House aide Alexander Butterfield revealed in a televised hearing that the Secret Service had, at Nixon’s behest, installed a recording system in the White House in February 1971. According to information on file at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, seven microphones were placed in the Oval Office: five in his desk and one on each side of the fireplace. Two more microphones were installed on the underside of the table in the Cabinet Room.

In April 1971, Secret Service technicians installed four microphones in the desk of the president’s private office in the Old Executive Office Building. They also tapped the telephone lines there, in the Oval Office and in the Lincoln Sitting Room, which was Nixon’s favorite room in the White House. In May 1972, they placed a microphone in Nixon’s study at Camp David and tapped the phones on his desk and on a nearby table.

He was not the first president to record meetings; the practice dates back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s time in office. But Nixon’s system was voice-activated so he wouldn’t have to press a button to capture conversations. His convenient disregard for the need to judge which conversations merited violation of privacy meant that everything he’d said, including self-incriminating statements, had been preserved.

Chief Judge John Sirica of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, presiding over the trial of the Watergate burglars, saw an opportunity to confirm his suspicions that they hadn’t acted alone. He ordered President Nixon to turn over nine tapes of 64 White House conversations to Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor in charge of investigating the allegations of Nixon’s misconduct.

Pardon Day

Richard M. Nixon

Nixon refused, citing Constitutional separation of powers, executive privilege and national security concerns. On October 19, 1973, Nixon proposed that U.S. Senator John Stennis, a Mississippi Democrat, review the tapes and report his findings to Cox as a compromise. When Cox rejected the offer, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to dismiss him; he refused and resigned.

Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus was approached and also refused to follow the president’s directive, generating such ill will that his firing was announced by the White House while he was in the midst of writing his letter of resignation. Solicitor General Robert Bork became acting Attorney General and immediately fired Cox per Nixon’s instructions.

Bork’s dismissal of Cox was challenged in a lawsuit filed by consumer advocate Ralph Nader and others. Per the New York Times:

On Nov. 14, 1973, Federal District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell ruled that the dismissal of Mr. Cox, in the absence of a finding of extraordinary impropriety as specified in the regulation establishing the special prosecutor’s office, was illegal.

The Justice Department did not appeal the ruling, and because Mr. Cox indicated that he did not want his job back, the issue was considered moot.

In a memoir published a few months after his death in 2012, Bork claimed that Nixon promised him the next available Supreme Court seat in exchange for doing his bidding. This would seem to contradict his repeated assertions that he had acted purely in the interest of the law, believing that Cox did not have the authority to prosecute the president.

Bork was finally nominated to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. His actions of fourteen years earlier were savaged by press and politicians, contributing to his defeat and the addition of his name to the lexicon of English slang.

bork
transitive verb \ˈbȯrk\
:to attack or defeat (a nominee or candidate for public office) unfairly through an organized campaign of harsh public criticism or vilification

Even with Bork’s willing participation, Nixon’s efforts were in vain. After he appointed Leon Jaworski to replace Cox, the new special prosecutor issued a new subpoena for the same tapes, chosen to confirm or refute the damning testimony of former White House Counsel John Dean.

Hoping to mollify the judge and the public, Nixon turned over edited transcripts of 43 conversations, including portions of 20 of the conversations cited in the subpoena. Nixon’s attorney, James St. Clair, moved to quash the subpoena, stating:

The president wants me to argue that he is as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV, only four years at a time, and is not subject to the processes of any court in the land except the court of impeachment.

Sirica denied the motion and ordered the president to turn the tapes over by May 31, 1974. Both Nixon and Jaworski appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court to intercede. It began hearing arguments in the case, United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, on July 8, 1974.

The court wished to reach a unanimous decision on an issue of such gravity so Judge William Rehnquist, appointed by Nixon, recused himself from the proceedings. On July 24, 1974, it upheld Judge Sirica’s ruling 8-0. Nixon was forced to hand over the requested recordings, but there was an 1812 minute gap in a June 20, 1972, audio tape.

Secretary Rose Mary Woods claimed responsibility for up to five minutes of the erasure, although her demonstration of how it could occur, requiring the simultaneous and continuous pressing of controls several feet apart, strained credulity. The press dubbed the maneuver the “Rose Mary Stretch.” The contents of the gap remain a mystery.

pardon day

Wood demonstrates how she could have erased tape.

Nixon had good reason to fear the release of the tapes. In one conversation on June 23, 1972, six days after the arrests, he told Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to strong-arm Richard Helms and Vernon Walters, director and deputy director of the CIA, and convince them to advance a bogus national security reason for the break-in and advise the FBI to cease its investigation.

The president expected compliance because his administration had, as he put it, “protected Helms from one hell of a lot of things.” He instructed Haldeman:

When you get in these people when you…get these people in, say: “Look, the problem is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing, and the President just feels that” ah, without going into the details… don’t, don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into it, “the President believes that it is going to open the whole Bay of Pigs thing up again. And, ah because these people are plugging for, for keeps and that they should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don’t go any further into this case,” period!

The Bay of Pigs Invasion was a failed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba. The paramilitary group that carried out the attack on April 17, 1961, had been trained and funded by the CIA. When the operation was exposed, it caused embarrassment to the agency and to President John F. Kennedy, who had approved the action.

Nixon’s reference to the “Bay of Pigs fiasco” was meant to raise the specter of a shameful episode in the CIA’s past while implying that another could be engineered if Helms didn’t cooperate. He refused. On November 20, 1972, the president summoned Helms to Camp David and informed him that his services were no longer required. He appointed him Ambassador to Iran to keep him in the fold.

******

Three days after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the House Judiciary Committee issued the Articles of Impeachment, which concluded that Nixon maintained a “secret investigative unit,” funded in part by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP). He used the resources of the FBI, CIA, Secret Service and other executive personnel to conduct surveillance, illegally obtain IRS records, initiate discriminatory tax audits, and harass political opponents and activists.

The existence of the tape recordings turned allegations into fact, proving obstruction of justice and abuse of power. Facing almost certain removal from office, Nixon chose to resign on August 9, 1974, addressing the nation on television the night before.

“By taking this action, I hope that I will have hastened the start of the process of healing which is so desperately needed in America,” he said, adding, “I deeply regret any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision.”

In a final speech to White House staff, Nixon tearfully declared, “Those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself,” wisdom perhaps too bleak for a fortune cookie but well-suited to an unemployable despot.

A total of 69 people were charged with crimes; 48 people and 20 corporations eventually pled guilty. Twenty-five were sent to prison, among them many who had been top officials in Nixon’s administration. President Richard Nixon was, of course, pardoned by his successor Gerald Ford on September 8, 1974, whose decision may have helped cost him the 1976 election. It seems that the hatred of which Nixon spoke destroyed others as well.

*****

We hope you will pardon us for going into so much depth while still only scratching the surface of this issue. We always come back to the same question: Why did this guy get a library?

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

September 7 is National Buy a Book Day

Logo by Clifton Hill

Today is National Buy a Book Day, created in 2010 by author Philip Athans to support bookstores, writers and the publishing industry. He chose September 7 as the date of its observance because it falls on his birthday.

Athans described his inspiration in science fiction/fantasy blog Grasping at the Wind:

It started with a tweet, which warned of more layoffs ahead at Borders. I know a few people there, and one of them told me, “I’m only speculating, but I really think that unless Borders has a huge holiday sales run, they’ll be looking at bankruptcy by the early part of next year. I hope I’m wrong. And unless things change, it wouldn’t surprise me if B&N shares the same fate in a few years.”

As we now know, Borders did indeed file for bankruptcy protection on February 16, 2011. The next day it began to liquidate 226 of 511 stores, laying off 6,000 employees. On July 19, 2011, it announced layoffs of 10,700 and liquidation of the remaining 399 stores; the last closed on September 18, 2011.

David Magee of the International Business Times had this to say in 2011:

So many customers liked to flip through some books, maybe even buying one every now and then. But Borders stores occupied 25,000 square feet on average, and it’s hard to make a profit renting some of America’s prime real estate at that level when people primarily enjoy looking at the only product you have to sell.

In other words, bookstores in America have become more park-like for many consumers than action-oriented book buying spots…The stores would have been great if they were truly park-like, with government subsidies filling in for the lack of profit…

It’s sad, yes. It’s also the reality of this day. Bookstores have become park-like for many, a place to relax and look. But active buying is required to keep them open.

These gentlemen’s dire predictions edge ever closer to becoming reality. Get out there today, find a store that sells books: paperbacks, hardcovers, even books of daily affirmations will do, if you must. Athans suggests you buy a book written by a living author so he or she can profit from the sale.

Feel free to post the title of the book you bought—or the book you’ve written—in the comments. We’re lacing up our sneakers now to embark on our own quest.

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays