Random Numbers

Random numbers are extremely hard to generate. But let’s backup.

I started out working as a college student writing statistical computer programs for a medical researcher using an IBM 1130 (a lot like a personal computer but very expensive). I was making $7 an hour in 1966. Yes, random numbers get used in many unexpected areas. Then working for a (nameless) mofia construction company building a weapons factory for the army. Vinnie, my boss, had a blonde daughter who theoretically worked for me but … well you know. No random numbers. But they had this incredible IBM 1130, the biggest 1130 you could buy and a cost-plus contract (we were stealing your tax dollars). One year of business was enough. I went back to statistical programming, mostly Landsat data. On the side, I got to work with lots of Ph.D. students doing their research. The world was beyond interesting … IBM 360/67 (Purdue), IBM 360/95 (NASA), CDC 6600 (Indiana University), CDC 6500 (Purdue). (There were others: Univac 1108, IBM 1620, IBM 1401, IBM 5100, etc.) The most interesting computers on the planet, especially the 360/95 (Even an IBM 360/195 down the street at Columbia). Fortran, COBOL, PL/1 (even CDC PL/1 which never went out of 0.95 beta status), IBM 360 Assembler, CDC Assembler (COMPASS), Univac 1108 Assembler, IBM 5100 Algol, etc. I still have printouts from both the 360/95 and 360/195 computers. I have disk packs from the CDC 6600 and IBM 1130, circuit boards from the CDC 6600 (real transistors), and some core planes including an RCA Spectra. At NASA, I worked for Robert Jastrow (Google him), but mostly I talked to Russians Jews thru an interpreter. We all spoken Fortran. Life was complicated. Random Numbers came to an end when I retired and went to work for Indiana State University as a Systems Programmer. My brain was tired. Manhattan was tiresome.

Btw, the NASA lab is still there. The largest remote sensing lab in the world. It’s above Tom’s, from Seinfeld. Back in my days, it was top secret and heavily guarded. Once inside the nameless door on 112th street, give the password and the guard behind the desk in the small room might let you in the elevator. Just say the password, nothing else. No small talk allowed. They were worried about violent student protests even though we were trying to save the planet. I passed the security check! This was my second gov job!

Link to a larger image.

Google map of Tom’s and NASA Goddard lab in Manhattan.

So, random numbers. I find three kinds of numbers interesting: prime, fractal, and random. Prime number and fractal research is huge. Random not so much. You can now use your smartphone to retrieve a completely random 1 or 0 from a quantum event. But in programming, things are still a little complicated.

After I retired to Indiana State University, l needed a hobby. Back to random numbers. I started generating random number based plots (Calcomp 3-pen plotter). The area with the plotter was next door to the photography area and art area with lots of students painting. The painting instructor noticed one of my plots and asked if he could have one. I was flattered, no one had ever shown an interest. A week later students were painting things that looked a lot like my random number patterns.

And then years passed. The plotter had been retired. Personal computers came along and one day while I was contemplating whether to plan suicide or find something interesting I found my old IBM random number booklet from 1968. Years ago that booklet, along with Walker and Lev, had changed my life. So began my personal computer screensaver I labeled scrsave1968. I had, fortunately, learned the computer language C for some reason. Microsoft Visual Studio to the rescue.

The interest faded and I retired. Tigers took up lots of my time. Then I dug out scrsave1968 and began making changes and feeding the images into a fractal program. I rewrote it as Visual Basic making it easier to change. And the result:
Link to scrsave1968 images.

Author: stephen d mccloud


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