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November 05, 2007

Watching the Stock Again

In the book Flynn, by Gregory McDonald, there is a scene where our hero is meeting someone and needs to pretend he has just flown in from Rome that morning. He receives a telegram telling him that the weather in Rome that day was cool and cloudy. When he meets his mark they comment on the weather in Rome being nice this time of year, and when Flynn replies that it was cloudy and cool when he left, his bona fides are proven.

Come to think of it maybe that was a coded exchange, sort of like Fred Flintstone saying "Shalom" on the ski lift. But the point is that back then, knowing the day's weather in Rome was pretty reasonable proof of having been in Rome, because unless you knew somebody in Rome, there wasn't any real way to find it out except maybe the next day when you could look it up in the paper. Nowadays it is trivial to find out the weather in Rome (it happens to be cool and cloudy as I write this).

Here's another example from my childhood. One time I was reading the sports section and noticed something highly improbable in a hockey box score--a penalty called one second after a goal, or something. I figured that one or the other time had been printed wrong, but I knew of no way to find out which it was (my father, bless his heart, called the NHL offices and confirmed that it was, in fact, a typo in one of the times). Now, of course, there are many web sites that would report such information that you could check it against.

Another piece of information that used to be hard for the general public to get was a live stock quote. When I interviewed at AT&T in 1988 I was impressed that they had TVs in the hallway showing the current value of their stock. Stockbrokers certainly had access to this information, but you couldn't just get it yourself. When I showed up at Microsoft I discovered that somebody had added a stock quote command to the email program that we used (which was called wzmail--not everybody ran wzmail, some people had Xenix terminals, but developers running OS/2, as we were back then, all ran wzmail). The program had a command line in one part of it, and if you typed "msft" (as opposed to, say, "new billg" which would create a new email message addressed to Bill) then it would report back the current price of the stock. Actually I think it was delayed 15 minutes. So we could obsessively watch the stock as it climbed up and up (which is what it did in those days).

I never really thought much about how the "msft" command worked beneath the covers. I figured that our corporate stock people had rigged up a connection to a quote feed and wzmail was somehow connecting to it. I found out much much later that it was actually an individual developer who had bought a dish that could receive stock quotes from a satellite, taken it apart and reassembled it in the ceiling of his office (above the tile ceiling), connected it to his computer via serial port, reverse-engineered the data stream to extract individual quotes, and started a program running to broadcast them over the corporate network (without getting into too much detail or mentioning the MAC address 03-00-00-00-00-01, suffice it to say that the corporate network back then was simple enough that a machine in one office could broadcast to all machines in the company at once, and it was easy to modify the wzmail program to listen for those broadcasts. It was also easy to listen to them and then immediately broadcast your own fake quote to everybody, as some joker did one April Fools Day).

I was thinking about all of this because with Microsoft's stock moving up a bit in recent weeks, people are actually watching the stock; you will occasionally hear somebody in our open space make a comment about it to nobody in particular. It flashes me back to the old days of typing "msft" in wzmail, except this is the era of ubiquitous information, so you don't need a satellite dish hidden in the ceiling and an easily hackable multicast protocol rigged up to your email client; the stock gadget that is built in to Vista will do just fine.

Posted by AdamBa at November 5, 2007 07:37 PM

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