Friday, August 16, 2013

Comic-Book Econometrics

We often hear the term "Cookbook Econometrics" - usually used in a derogatory sense - and I've posted on this topic in the past. "Comic-Book Econometrics" is something completely different. It relates to a particular econometrics computing package, and a comic that I keep in my office.

No connection? Let's see......

The econometrics package in question is SHAZAM, developed by Ken White. I've told a couple of tales about Ken in previous posts (here and here), and I want to make it clear right from the start that I have a great deal of respect for the SHAZAM package. I've been "under the hood" (inside the code) with Ken on numerous occasions - more than enough to know that it's rock solid.

The comic-book in question is this one:

It's Vol. 1, No. 4 of the SHAZAM! comics series (July 1973).

This particular issue of the comic reveals the origin on the word SHAZAM........ And yes, this really was the inspiration for the name of Ken's package!
"All the powers of six great gods gathered together and placed in the hands of boy broadcaster Billy Batson! When he pronounces the name of the ancient Egyptian wizard, SHAZAM, he becomes, in a blinding flash of lightning, CAPTAIN MARVEL, the world's mightiest mortal!
Then, when evil is defeated, Capt. Marvel repeats the word and changes back to Billy. So amazing and sudden is the change that most people never realize what has happened!"
There, on p.5., Billy receives his powers from Old SHAZAM, who tells him:

So, we learn that SHAZAM is an acronym for:

Solomon - for Wisdom
Hercules - for Strength
Atlas - for Stamina
Zeus - for Power
Archilles - for Courage
Mercury - for Speed

Now, as if that's not enough excitement for one day, let me tell you that there was another reason for naming the SHAZAM econometrics package on the basis of several individual names.

Back in the day when Ken first released SHAZAM, there were no personal computers. (Yes, there really was such a time - it's sometimes called "the olden days"). Worse than that, your typical mainframe computer had VERY limited memory. This was an issue when it came to working with large amounts of code.

To give you an idea, the "work horse" mainframe computer in many universities when I was taking undergrad. computing courses in the '60's was the IBM 360. It came in various "models", and in 1968 the "top-of-the-line" model was a one-off  IBM360/91, run by NASA. It had (wait for it......) 6.3MBytes of memory! I also used to do a lot of computing on Burroughs B6700 mainframes. Introduced in 1971, the B6700 sported a whole 6MBytes of memory. Compare that with your cell-phone!

One solution to the memory constraint was to essentially break the code for a large package into modules of a size that could be loaded sequentially into the computer's memory for execution. Each module would have particular capabilities. Then, for example, you'd read in a punch-card with a command such as "LOAD SOLOMON", followed by sequence of cards that read your data and produce plots. Similarly, "LOAD HERCULES", followed by the appropriate command cards, would enable you to estimate an OLS regression.

(I've probably got the modules associated with the incorrect tasks here, but I'm sure you get the point.)

SHAZAM provided us with no less than six ancient helpers to do the heavy lifting associated with econometric computing!

You must admit, it was a nice touch on Ken's part, and so typical of his sense of humour! You can probably guess who kindly gave me that copy of the SHAZAM comic that I still proudly possess. 

So, the next time that you're running a few regressions on your wrist watch, give some thought to the "Good 'Ol Days" of Comic-Book Econometrics.

© 2013, David E. Giles


  1. I am wondering what are those six modules, beside plots (is it two-way or more complicated graphs?)and OLS. In addition, assigning name is definitely hard. I have a comic scene in my mind: the modules have to compete against each other for the title of being the smartest or the most courageous.

    1. Those were just examples - it was all a long time ago, and I don;t remember the details. Of course, this is all now totally redundant!