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My Computer and Me--a Romantic Comedy, or a Tragedy?


Over nearly 40 years, I've spent a lot of time with computers. Sometimes I've been amazed by what they can do. Other times I've wanted to rip them apart and light them on fire. It's difficult to say whether my changing feelings about computers have had more to do with some passive/aggressive streak in me or with something similar to Stockholm syndrome. Here's my story.

In junior high and high school, I was intrigued by computers, but I didn't have access to one. In the mid-to-late '70's, no one owned a computer. No one even thought of owning one. I remember vainly trying to convey to someone how much I wanted one. His response was, "What would you do with it?" I remember thinking how short-sighted and ignorant he was. It upset me that no one else seemed to "get it". This was back in the very early days of "micro computers". The name "personal computer" hadn't been coined yet by IBM. The PET had just come out. You could build a Heathkit computer, but you couldn't buy an Apple. They didn't exist yet. The truth was that, at the time, computers couldn't do much. We didn't even have word-processing programs. The first significant application was computer games. My neighbor had a Pong game. I played it a few times and found it to be more frustrating than fun. Little did I understand how that frustration would foreshadow much of my relationship with computers throughout the rest of my life.

My earliest experience with a real computer was in the ninth grade. My algebra teacher took the class to the "computer room". It was nothing more than a room with some tables and a line printer. A long train of paper lay unrolled on the floor in front of it. On that paper, we could see computer drawings of Star Trek spaceships. The teacher explained that some kids had been playing a Star Trek game. She told us that the line printer was connected to a mainframe, but she didn't know where it was or what kind it was. She said, if we wanted, we could use it after school. She had no idea how to use it or how we could learn to use it. So, although I would have liked to learn to use it, I had no idea how to begin.

It wasn't until a few years later in high school that I finally had hands-on access to my first computer. I signed up for the first computer course that my large high school had ever offered. In the classroom, we had a TRS-80 Model 1 with four kilobytes of RAM, on which we learned how to write "Benton Harbor" BASIC. That was when I learned that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not manage to write a bug-free program on the first try. Over thirty years later, as far as I can recall, I have still not written a bug-free program on the first try. And I have written, I'm sure, well over a hundred thousand lines of code in my life, perhaps as much as a quarter of a million.

In college, I took Fortran 2 when I was a sophomore engineering student. I had actually begun learning Fortran two or three years earlier. "Learning" had consisted of memorizing Fortran syntax from a book, because I didn't have access to a computer. At the time, I remember thinking that there was a lot missing from the book, but it wasn't until later that I was able to identify that the missing information had to do with the computer's operating system. My college Fortran course was the very last at my university to use punch cards. I remember sitting with other engineering students on winter nights in a very cold punch card room in Jones Hall with windows looking out onto a streetlight-lit road of the university, trying to type a line of code perfectly onto a punch card and having to pull it off the machine when I made a mistake. I remember all around me other students' caustic remarks when they made mistakes too, and also the knowing chuckles from others upon hearing those remarks. At the end of every semester, many of the engineering students threw their boxes full of punched cards out of their dormitory windows, and the wind blew them everywhere, upsetting the janitors, who grumbled under their breaths about those $%&* college kids. Jones Hall was demolished with explosives a year or two later, and I watched the great clouds of asbestos rise into the sky as it fell. I didn't use a computer much again until graduate school, when I spent many hours simulating algorithms for my thesis. I remember being alone in the computer room on Christmas day, trying to make some progress on this and not getting anywhere. That was the beginning of my dislike for computers that, as it turned out, lasted through the early part of my engineering career.

The company I worked for after graduate school used VAX 11780 mainframes. What surprised me most was that the company didn't seem to be concerned at all with how productive we were on their computers. There was no class, or any type of program, to teach us how to use their VAXes. The engineering managers, if they ever considered this problem, must have expected us to learn the VAX/VMS operating system by osmosis. This was not at all easy for me, because when I asked for help from someone more knowledgeable, the usual answer was just to read the "online manual". The online manual seemed to have been written by some human who may as well have been a machine himself for all the intelligible information that it conveyed. I remember trying to get my work done with as many as fifty other people on the same mainframe. Sometimes, especially in the afternoons, that meant typing a character on the VT-100 terminal keyboard and waiting for two or more seconds for the green character to appear on it's monochrome display. This was a very frustrating time for me, because I wanted to do a good job. But I couldn't, because I didn't have the unencumbered use of the tools I needed. I felt something like I imagine a car mechanic would feel trying to rebuild an engine with no tools other than a stick and a rock. For a couple of months, I came into work at 2:30 in the morning, so I could have the computers all to myself while I worked on an especially computationally-intensive analysis. The streets were so deserted at that time of the morning, that when my Datsun 280ZX reached the main street, I floored it and kept it floored. When it reached about 85 mph (in a 35 mph zone), it was time to jam on the brakes to make the turn into the company parking lot.

After a couple of years, I was so disgusted by many things at the company that I quit and went somewhere else. I went to another engineering company, this time in California. I found that things were pretty much the same there as far as computer resources were concerned, and as far as managers' lack of concern. But by this time, at least I knew the VMS operating system better, so I didn't have that frustration. And the work in general was more interesting. What I liked less were the people I worked with. And I hated California. I hated the cost of living, the taxes, and the traffic. The beach was nice, but it couldn't make up for everything else. At this company, somehow, I, an engineer who disliked computers more than any other engineer I knew, was picked to have the Ada computer language shoved down my throat. It was a language that was designed by committees of academics, and it showed. I absolutely did not want to learn Ada. My manager didn't care what I wanted.

I had the good fortune of being laid off soon after that. While I was unemployed, I decided to learn a computer language that I had heard good things about. I decided to learn C++. So, I bought a used 286 PC, a book on Turbo C++, and the Turbo C++ software, and I started learning. After reading through the book, I decided that my first significant programming project would be a 3D flight simulator. I learned all about DOS memory models, interfacing with the mouse and the keyboard, Turbo C++ graphics functions, and writing my own 3D graphics functions. And really for the first time, I was enjoying myself in front of a computer screen. Thus it was, that my previous semi-hatred for computers was slowly transformed into an enjoyment of them. The only reason for this was that now I was the person choosing what I would learn and what I would do with the computer that I owned. I had no manager pointing me to a computer room and disappearing for three months while I struggled to complete an assignment virtually on my own. Even though I was on my own now, I had the instruction I needed and the tools to do what I wanted. This was completely different than work. This was actually fun.

As I continued working on my flight simulator, I increasing the power of my computer. First, I upgraded the motherboard to make it a 386 PC. Then I upgraded again to make it a 486. Six months later, I knew C++. And I had really enjoyed the learning process. Then, I found another engineering job, and the flight simulator when onto two floppy disks, which went into a shoe box on my shelf, where it stayed for years. That was depressing to me. But I still had C++. After I had used Fortran at work for fifteen years, my industry switched to mostly C and C++, and I was able to use nearly everything I had learned about C++ for work. Writing code was still frustrating at times, but it was the normal, manageable frustration that all engineers experience regularly.

I think the most important lesson that I learned from all this was to not take a job that I wasn't interested in. Having a job that I enjoyed going to most mornings improved my happiness level so much that it was worth it to me to be picky about what I did and where I worked as an engineer. When the work that I was interested in dried up, I no longer allowed a disinterested manager to tell me what to work on next. I looked around for a job where I could work on something interesting, quit my current job, and took that one. When managers informed me that I could either be laid off or work on what they wanted, I surprised them by choosing to be laid off. And I began to enjoy my work and to like working with computers.

I learned all sorts of operating systems before my industry dumped it's mainframes, and then its SUN, HP, Silicon Graphics, and DEC workstations and began using PC's exclusively. I reached the point where I could learn the basics of a new operating system in a week, and be competent with it in a month. Yes, there was frustration. But I knew from the beginning that the frustration wouldn't last long. I also enjoyed building more computers for my own purposes. I discovered the internet in the early '90's and learned to love it too. And I have continued learning as much as I can about computers and everything related to them. I've worked on many computer projects in my spare time. There has been frustration and cussing at a computer when it resists being bent to my will. But, almost always, I eventually win the figurative battle of wills and get it to do what I want. The best thing about this process is what I learn along the way. I'm always stretching my computer knowledge. I'm always learning how to do more. Over the years I've turned what was once something I had to do, because it was my job, into something I like to do, because I'm learning so much by doing it.

That's the story of my life with computers. There's no romance, except in the broadest sense of the word. There is tragedy from time to time. There is certainly love and hate at times. It's been an interesting journey, a microcosm of my life as a whole.

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