My history with computers
After graduating from college, in 1983, I wanted to try my hand at writing photography criticism. I had a fancy typewriter with a 20 character memory, but I wanted the ability to edit my writing on a larger scale, so I wanted a word processor. I was surprised to learn that a dedicated word processor was very expensive and that a personal computer was much more affordable so I set out to buy a computer. I wasn’t interested in any of its capabilities other than word processing, and as a touch typist the feel of the keyboard was of paramount importance. I would go into a computer store, sit down at a machine, and type for a half hour or so. I did that with as many computers as I could find. The gold standard in typewriter keyboards was the IBM Selectric, which had sculpted keys and clear feedback when a key was pressed. No computer keyboard came close. The TRS 80 and Apple II had a mushy, spongy feel. The best one I found was on the IBM PC, but it was nowhere near as good as the Selectric. I thought it ridiculous that IBM didn’t use their typewriter technology in building their computer, but I learned that they had opened an entirely new division to build a personal computer, and it did not talk to other divisions. Ridiculous, I thought. But I bought an IBM PC. It had two 5.25” floppy drives, no hard drive, and 16 K of RAM. Before long I maxed out the RAM at 64 K and added a 20 MB hard drive.
It only took a week or two for me to discover that I could make my computer make sounds at specified frequencies, and that I could specify those frequencies through a programming language called BASIC. With BASIC I could also specify the durations of the tones and a whole lot more. Within a month I had written a program that defined the pitches of a diatonic scale; defined tonic, dominant, and sub dominant chords; had an algorithm for deciding what type of chord to use when; an algorithm for selecting when to use notes within the chord and when passing tones were acceptable; and selected either 3/4 or 4/4 time. Then my disk became corrupted and I had no backup, so I lost it all. But that got me into programming.
A year and a half later I was teaching in a boarding school. Boarding school teachers teach pretty much every subject they know anything about plus a few others. At least that was my experience. I taught English, world history, music, and computer programming (on Apple II computers). I was also a dorm councilor and supervised swimming and the photography club. (I invented a swimming sport called Flip Flop that was a huge success.) Of these subjects, I was probably most qualified to teach computer programming—and you know how long I’d worked with that!
One fun project I did with my programming class was to invent a game. This was in the days of text-based adventure games. Your screen may display, “you’re standing on the west side of a large room. In front of you is a large chest of drawers, to your right is an open door, and to your left is a window.” Then you would type what you want to do, like “Open the top drawer.” Then the program would tell you what was in there, like maybe a key. You would take the key and sometime later in the game you’d find a lock which you could unlock with the key, etc. I had one student in this class who was already proficient in BASIC. He and I together wrote a template for a text-based game based on the school. We included all the buildings and various outdoor locations along with navigation commands to go from one place to another. Then it was each student in the class’s task to come up with a game using this template.
One student’s game was “find your classes” in which you had a certain number of moves per class period and the goal was to be in the right rooms in the right periods. As the game developed new features were added, such as a bully who would get in a fight with you if you were both in the same room, in which case you’d be sent to the headmaster’s office and lose a move.
Another student added locations to the template, including the secret place students would go to smoke pot. He was surprised I went there and busted him. "How did you find this place?" Duh!
During my summer vacation I decided to learn the Pascal programming language, because there was a very inexpensive version available. The task I assigned myself for learning Pascal was to build a database to keep track of all of my sheet music. The database would have fields for composer, title, era, and number of instruments; and you could sort by any one of them. Learning a new language was frustrating because everything I tried to do I knew how to do in another language but didn’t know the translation. For example, to print text to the screen in BASIC the command is “print”, but in Pascal it is “writeln”(which means write line). I had a good manual for Pascal, but looking up “print” didn’t help a bit. What would have been useful would have been a BASIC-to-Pascal dictionary, but I did not know of one.
I finished the database program and became proficient in Pascal. I eventually also learned dBase, Aspect (a scripting language for the ProComm Plus communications program), HTML, ColdFusion and Flash. (After the second language, it gets easier.) A language I should have learned was C++, but I lacked the motivation.
As the Information Systems Manager at Herman International I wrote two programs that I’m especially proud of. The first was really a string of programs in several languages. This was before the World Wide Web. Working with a pre-existing computer bulletin board program and our company’s survey scoring program (in C++), I wrote code in Pascal with embedded dBase commands and in Aspect that would allow our customers to log on to our system remotely, upload their survey data, get the data scored, and download the results, all with the press of a single key.
The other program I am proud of generated an interpretation of the customer’s survey data. This program had a very complicated tree structure of if-then conditions. I worked on this program for a month at home. I would wake up typically around six, sit at the computer and start working. It was not unusual to first notice the time around 10 o’clock, at which point I would call the office and say I was working at home that day. My boss did not appreciate this, thinking that I’d simply overslept. But I finished the project and it was integrated into the company’s materials. In fact, when the next generation of the scoring system was built, the programmers used my code intact rather than rewrite this aspect of the system — even though I had supplied a natural language flowchart of the code.
When I arrived at Herrmann International, I was not looking for a job. I was hanging out with my girlfriend, one of the boss’s daughters, while she finished the project she was working on. Our plan was that when she finished we would move on to other pastures. This was in 1987. The company had two computers; one was only for entering data from and scoring the survey; and the other was for a secretary to transcribe the boss’s dictation for a book he was writing. I was familiar with the word processing program they used (WordPerfect), and watching the secretary type, I occasionally made suggestions. One was, “see what happens if you don’t press 'Enter' at the end of the line.” She, being used to typewriters, expected the letters to pile up on top of each other at the margin, so as her type approached the margin she slowed and began typing one letter at a time while she watched the screen. When a word jumped to the next line, her hands flew off the keys, her eyes popped and she gave a start. She looked up at me and said, “Does that always happen?” “Yup,” I said. After a few similar revelations the boss asked if I wanted a job. I said, “sure.”
I’ve never been very good with financial matters, and this was a classic example. My previous job had been teaching in a boarding school, where I worked eight months of the year and room and board were included. The salary was commensurately low. My new boss asked what I had been making in my previous job and I told him my salary. He offered to pay the same, and I said, “okay.” I worked for that company for 17 years and was always grossly underpaid for the work I did, but I made enough to live on, and that’s all I cared about.
At Herrmann International one of my jobs was to train the staff on any computer application they needed to know, and the graphic designer need to learn Photoshop. Of course that meant I had to learn Photoshop, which I did and immediately fell in love with it. That was the beginning of the end of my career as an information systems manager and the seed of my rebirth as a photographer.
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