Ehrman's Commentary on Murphy's Law

Shared by Michael Goldberg on 20th March 2018

I too was fortunate to work with Dr. John at IBM STL back in the late eighties/early nineties. On my desk was a Murphy's law page-a day calendar.  Murphy's Law, as you must remember, states "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong".
One day, the entry was
Ginsberg's Theorem (a parody on the generalized Laws of Thermodynamics) stated:

You can't win. You can't break even. You can't even quit the game.

The entry for the next day read:

Ehrman's Commentary (On Ginsberg's Theorem): 
"Things will get worse before they will get better. Who said things would get better?"

I showed that to John and he allowed that he was indeed the Ehrman of Ehrman's commentary. He described how he participated in a usenet newsgroup back in the day (possibly one of the humor forums, I forget) discussing Murphy's Law.  Some guy collected all the contributions, published them as a book on Murphy's Law and made money off of it. All John got was his name to be immortalized and forever linked to Murphy's Law (feel free to Google Murphy's Law Ehrman to see what I mean).

Co-worker from SLAC

Shared by Jim Nisbet on 12th March 2018

An early memory of mine from SLAC in the 70's was John’s trailer office (prior to CGB) which leaked badly — the floor was also warped so John drilled a big hole at the lowest point of his floor.  Problem solved. 

I also remember John’s hand written and illustrated intro to Wylbur!  A very gentle and human introduction to text editing.

John put a marble in the bell of his office phone shortly after we all moved in to the “new building” so when his phone rang it made a distinctive (and quite awful) sound.  That way when he was in the terminal room he knew when the phone was for him.    

An old Schola friend

Shared by Sandi Thompson on 3rd March 2018

I met John in 1970 when I joined the Schola Cantorum.  After rehearsals a group of us would go out for drinks to wind down.  One night at a Cupertino restaurant the waitress came over to take our order.  John immediately asked if they took Carte Blanche.  She said, I think so, and came back with a carta blanca beer.  After much laughter, John turning red, explained to her he meant the Dining Card which was popular back then.  He then sent the the incident to Herb Cain at the SF Chronicle who put it in his column a few weeks later.  We were all elated to see it in print.

John had a unique sense of humor that we all loved.  I’ve been fortunate to have been in touch with him and Tineke via email and Christmas cards since I moved to AZ twenty-one years ago.  I’m so happy that they had the chance to say their vows. They had so many wonderful years together.  Tineke, my prayers are with you.

John's Jumble

Shared by Mary Artibee on 2nd March 2018

John's ebullience was his trademark, for me at least... One day at SLAC he stopped me in the hall and showed me a Word Jumble puzzle... "You know what this word is, don't you?"...  As a matter of fact, the unjumbled word did not pop into my head at that moment but John's contagious enthusiasm for these puzzles infected me, and I've enjoyed them ever since... and think of JRE each time I play one...

Piled to the ceiling

Shared by Len Shustek on 2nd March 2018

John had a couple of different offices during the time that I overlapped with him at SLAC in the 1970s. It was surprising that there was any room for John in them: every table, desk, and available floor space was piled to the ceiling with manuals and computer printouts. There didn't seem to be any organizing principle. But there must have been, because he had no trouble finding anything he was looking for. 

When the fire marshall would make his annual inspection, there would be some negotiation, after which the piles would retract from the ceiling. For a while.

Adios Amigo

Shared by Dan Greiner on 27th February 2018

I was virtually introduced to John in 1992, when IBM introduced the High-Level Assembler (HLASM). John starred in a video that described the many of the features of the new product. At the time, I was working for an IBM competitor (Amdahl Corporation), but competitor or not, we wasted no time in ordering a  copy of HLASM ... an absolutely wonderful product. I later came to think of him as both the father and mother of HLASM.

In 2001, I joined IBM's Systems Architecture groups, working from my home in San Jose. John and I would regularly confer on the phone, and he arranged for me to be located on site at the Santa Teresa lab. After that, had lunch almost every day and collaborated on new instruction-set architecture (for which we shared several patents).

John was the kindest and gentlest soul I have known; and it was a pleasure to
have worked with him and a privilege to call him a friend.

My long association with John

Shared by Len Shustek on 23rd February 2018
I was always very fond of John, and admired him on many levels. I first met him about 46 years ago at SLAC, when I was a Computer Science graduate student at Stanford. We bonded over many things: an appreciation of Fortran and Assembly Language, a penchant for accuracy in exposition, and an office style that reflected our natures as packrats.

John's packrat tendency certainly was to the benefit of the Computer History Museum. He donated a substantial collection of material (, including his notes from a programming course for ILLIAC at the University of Illinois in 1957. He paid for and donated reproductions of the IBM green (360) and yellow (370) reference cards, as well as the quirky blue-covered IBM Songbook from the 1930s.

He was also the first and so far only donor to a "Babbage Difference Engine Rebuilding Fund" at the museum to enable us to build our own replacement for the Engine we demonstrated to great acclaim for seven years but had to return to its owner. The fact that his $2000 contribution would need to be expanded by a factor of 1000 didn't deter him in the least. 

John was a remarkable human being, and he will be missed by many.

John on teaching assembler language

Shared by Len Shustek on 23rd February 2018

Getting to Know Your Assembler Bootcamp Instructor:
John Ehrman

By Andrew Grzywacz

This year’s SHARE Academy: Assembler Bootcamp is fast approaching. With the event just around the corner, take a moment to get acquainted with one of your instructors: John Ehrman. We asked John to share with us what drove him to co-found the boot camp, his years of experience in assembler language and what he hopes to impart to attendees by the end of the course.

What was your motivation behind starting the Assembler Bootcamp?

Well, as the name implies, to give programmers a boot camp in assembler language! Michael Stack and I started it together in 2000 because it occurred to us that, as important and fundamental as assembler is, a lot of programmers either don’t understand the language or don’t understand how important it is to other languages. You could program in whichever language you like and never know what’s actually happening when the program is issuing requests to the machine. By teaching assembler, we can give programmers some insight into what’s going on “under the hood,” so to speak. Assembler gives them a way to understand the actual activity going on beneath the overlay.

How did you first hear about or become interested in assembler?

I first learned about it in grad school. My roommate and I were both studying physics, and one day he asked me to proofread a program for him. I couldn’t understand it in the slightest! So he recommended taking a course with this physicist who taught computational physics. That was when I became first exposed to using a computer, and I’ve been hooked on it ever since! I took my first computer course in 1958 and never looked back (though I did still have to finish my physics degree).

What’s the biggest problem that you think programmers face when first trying to learn assembler?

The learning curve for assembler is very different from the learning curve that comes with other high-level languages. In most cases, when you’re learning a programming language, you have to think about the kind of data that you want your program to manipulate – like currencies or character strings. But in assembler, understanding how that language works means having to learn hexadecimal arithmetic or binary arithmetic. It forces you to learn these other concepts on the side just to execute programs in assembler. It’s a little like having to learn about how combustion works in a car engine just to drive to the grocery store.

What’s the main lesson you hope to impart to the class?

“People who are more than casually interested in computers should have at least some idea of what the underlying hardware is like. Otherwise the programs they write will be pretty weird.”

Don Knuth wrote that in The Art of Computer Programming, and it essentially sums up the whole value of the boot camp in my eyes. The fact of the matter is a lot of teaching institutions have cut back on assembler lessons, or eliminated them entirely, because it’s considered an old technology and not something that will lead to any acclaim or promotions for people who write about it or teach it. But assembler is so fundamental to what we do, that if we can get our attendees to walk away from the Assembler Bootcamp really believing in the overarching value of assembler, then our mission was accomplished.

How SHARE described John

Shared by Len Shustek on 23rd February 2018

Ehrman has been an Assembler Language programmer since the first days of System/360. In the past, he has served as a teacher of Assembler Language at Stanford University (1967-1980), a SHARE Assembler Language Project Manager (1968-1972 and 1988-2011), and fathered IBM's "High Level Assembler." Ehrman is also the author of a recently completed Assembler Language textbook.

PS from Len: don't miss the audio interview posted in the "Gallery/audio" section of this website.

The SHARE award in John's name

Shared by Len Shustek on 23rd February 2018

SHARE Awards: The John R. Ehrman Award for Sustained Excellence in Technical Education

This award was established to recognize an outstanding body of contribution to SHARE’s technical program. It honors those who have provided the content of SHARE’s technical program, by delivering high quality presentations, contributing to strategic white papers and ongoing task forces, championing technical activities, and sharing technical expertise at a high level. 

How John described himself to SHARE

Shared by Len Shustek on 23rd February 2018

John Ehrman
IBM Corporation

After too many courses in math and physics John discovered computers, and has enjoyed working at the Assembler Language level ever since. He is the former product poobah for the High Level Assembler (HLASM), now a free-floating assembler enthusiast.

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