Wednesday, April 26, 2017

--- Using computers ---


Long ago, in the late 60s, my brother was a computer technician in the Air Force. That gave me my first deep exposure to computers because I got to look through his training materials and he got permission to show us around what was then the Southeastern Defense installation. Back then, the Southeastern Defense computer was stored in a three and a half story, air-conditioned block house. The block house was air conditioned because the computer was made of vacuum tubes that would explode in the Southeastern summer if they were not kept cool. The computer could be programmed using assembly language but a lot of work was still done in machine code - all 1s and 0s.

Later, in the seventies, I took computer courses at Auburn University and even programmed as a work study student using strange languages like APL, PL-1, FORTRAN, and (Yuck!) COBOL. The computer I used was scattered across the campus. I programmed using punch cards (look it up!) but there was a new medium - paper tape that could be punched and kept in a roll until the code was compiled. A favorite program for up and coming programmers was a few lines that would make the tape punching machine spit out a prodigious pile of paper tape before an administrator could shut it off.

Back then, I would punch lines of code on paper card and carry the deck over to the computer department where I would wait a couple of days until they compiled the code. Hopefully the printout would say what I wanted it to say instead of ERROR.

In the 80s, I worked for Radio Shack and sold TRS-80 personal computers and Color Computers. My first personal computer was a 256K (that's a whopping 256 kilobytes of random access memory) Color Computer with a printer and, for external storage, a tape recorder. There were modules available that could be plugged into the side of the computer. I had an early spreadsheet and (my favorite) a synthesizer that I could program to play four-part harmonies. Some of my original pieces (now available for listening or download on the Therian Timeline) were composed on that computer. 256K - laugh if you want but that computer was more powerful than the Southeastern defense computer my brother worked on. I could program in BASIC!. A new thing at that time was a sorta cool thing called the Internet.

To that point, a computer user was also a computer programmer. Then, user friendly computer programs began coming out and, today, many, if not most computer users have no experience in programming.

When I finally began my professional life in Selma, Alabama, I was equipped with a computer with a few megabytes of RAM, a CRT monitor, and Windows 3.0. I had a job search program which always included Brain Surgeon in the list of possible jobs. I was trying to complete a Masters research project and the work computer couldn't handle my data set. By the time I retired in 2013, I had graduated to a Windows XP machine. I couldn't upgrade further because the program I had built over the 20 years in Selma to process my client information would not work on later versions of Microsoft Office. They had dropped the Visual Basic macro language I was using to program.

I have graduated now to a 581 Gigabyte computer with a Terabyte external hard drive and four CPUs, and a telephone (a telephone, mind you!) with 3.74 gigabytes of RAM  and 29.71 gigabytes of internal memory.

And I still get impatient waiting the few minutes it takes for my computer to finish doing what it's doing.

The Yale-New Haven Teacher's Instiute ( has a quaint module called "Computing" from 1981 (That's about the time I was buying my first computer). You might want to read it - it has historical interest.

But, although they used BASIC then, I still use a version of BASIC to program. The Basic that's used as a macro language for OpenOffice and LIbreOffice is both more and less powerful than the BASIC I learned as a first programming language. It's more powerful because it is able to access and manipulate just about all the objects that make up the LibreOffice productivity suite. It's less powerful because the programming part of the language is only a subset of BASIC. For instance, it doesn't have the Data....Read structure that allows BASIC to load tables of data from strings of data contained in the code. I missed that so badly that I ended up programming a couple of functions to do approximately the same thing. "Real" programmers today use languages like Python, C, Java, and Drupal.

Not long ago, a striking shift occurred in the world. Suddenly, paper was not the preferred medium for storage. Before, even with computers, you printed a text and put it on a shelf or in a filing cabinet. Now, people save everything on digital media and, if they want to send something to someone else, they send an electronic file. And there is something called a cloud in which you can save all your stuff on the Internet, in cyberspace.

I often say that my father saw more change in his lifetime than was seen in the entire history of mankind before him. I have seen more change in my lifetime than has been seen in the entire history of mankind before me. My nephew has seen more change in his lifetime than has been seen in the entire history of mankind before him. It's daunting.

When I started to college, students were required to know how to use the greatest portable ever - the (nope, not the graphing calculator) slide rule. Now students have to be effective with a calculator that does logarithms, calculus, and graphs functions. When I started to college, a four function calculator (add, subtract, multiply, and divide) was just coming down to below a hundred dollars. I still like slide rules. They don't require batteries or the sun - but now they're antiques so they cost over a hundred dollars.

Another you know what an analog computer is? Twenty years ago, analog computers were a thing.

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