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Early Computer Memories

My early computer memories could fill a book, but folklore.org reminded me of a few that surface only rarely. I'm listing them here for myself so that they may serve as a stronghold against the rising tide of forgotten memories. In no particular order…

I think his name was "Aaron" and he worked at Titus Video in my hometown. He once recommended that I rent Demolition Man and seemed to be particularly amused by the "three seashells" joke. We had a lab full of "brand new" 286 PCs in my high school and one day he was making a space ship float around. He explained something about bit-mapping, blitting, and trying to make the sprite animate smoothly. That's the first time I'd heard the word sprite, I believe. I remember wondering why it was so hard for him to get a "sprite" to animate smoothly on the PC. After all, they seemed to animate quite smoothly on the LCIII I had at home (more on that later). 🙂

This is the same lab in which I was exposed to a variety of things, one of which was a small movie file (an early MPEG, perhaps?) of naked people doing naked people things. Tim brought it in and a group of us laughed at it during a BASIC class I was taking in my freshman year. Little did I know I could have tested out of the class and taken Pascal instead.

The BASIC class was taught by Mrs. Ferraro, if I remember correctly, and she didn't particularly care for me. After all, I was a hacker (though not very 1337 of course). I sat in the back (hackers don't sit in the front!) and typed through all of her lectures. Mrs. Ferraro once handed out an assignment which required us to program a virtual supermarket. You could choose items from a list and it would total them for you in the end. We had two weeks, and I was done in the first 45 minutes. I embellished - I added theme music and a scanner-like "bleep" at checkout with a running total of the cost. My program had virtual aisles and you had to type commands like "up" or "pass" or "grab" to move around the store. It calculated sales tax depending on your state and had very primitive ASCII graphics of each of your items as you inspected them. I had about 125 items. Cans were particularly easy to render in ASCII. I remember that a turkey was significantly more difficult, and I settled on a pseudo-drumstick object (which also represented chicken).

We turned the code and application in on the final day, and a week later, I got my "F" back. "Program does not behave as specified" was the reason. After pleading my case to the principal - that I'd be bored, otherwise, and would he rather I be engaging my mind or causing trouble? - I had my A and a renewed distaste for this particular teacher.

This distaste directly lead to my favorite memory of that lab: copying some files off of her machine and installing them on mine. These magic files allowed me to log in and watch (or control) another student's screen. That provided near-endless fun as I'd type code while people went to the restroom, delete characters as they typed them, and dot their screens with satanic messages. I'd even type "bless you" when they sneezed. My solid poker face helped me remain undetected for weeks, though Tim the porn guy knew what I was doing. Amy Williams was most freaked out by this, and was because of this one of my favorite "victims." I could even observe the teacher observing other students. The app was like Apple Remote Desktop.

It was in this same room and at about this same time that I met a guy named Adam Roll (who later transferred to Idaho). He told me about shareware and spent most of his time in the lab trying to draw circles quickly or playing Leisure Suit Larry. I remember being fascinated by the many virtual STDs he acquired. Larry, that is, not Adam.

When I learned BASIC (I didn't know I could test out of BASIC and move right on to Pascal, dammit), I remember writing a golf statistics tracker in my spare time. I'd print out the code, take it home, and write code by hand in the margins. I later realized that I could maintain the same set of code on my Apple IIe emulator (or whatever we had on the LCIII at the time), and began doing just that. I later released the statistics program (complete with its own theme music, splash screens, and persistent data storage) as shareware and requested $5. I have no idea where it is now, but I do know that last year someone mailed me a crisp $5 for the app. I've made $25 from that app all told.

I remember playing on my mom's computers - the same Apple IIes we would "babysit" while school was out in the summer - some game in which you were a fish and you had to decide which other fish to eat (like Dolly Varden, trout, or algae) and in which you had to dive away from an osprey if you were at the top portion of the lake. Of course, I played a helluva lot of Oregon Trail (hunting!!!) and Number Crunchers as well.

I remember spending time with MacPaint in fifth grade. The teacher would basically let us do whatever we wanted for 45 minutes, and everyone was fascinated by the brick pattern and the spray can. I remember he taught us that CAR was how we reset the computers - control-apple-reset. It's the command key, Mr. Wagner! Heh.

My first experience with Extensions in system 7.1 or so was "hey look, they make neat things appear at the bottom of the screen when you start it up." Oscar the Grouch was, without a doubt, my favorite extension. I installed that thing everywhere, and I played a whole helluva lot of Golf. I forget the name of the app - it may have just been "Golf" - but it had a course designer and everything. It fit on a floppy disk. The 800k variety. 🙂

Finally, I remember being rather embarrassed once when we "lost" SimpleText. We took the computer to the service people, who showed us the "Find" command: my dad had moved it to another folder. That embarrassment set me on a long, long, learning spree. I vowed never to really have to ask another person a question about my computer from there to eternity. So far I've lived up to that.

This is in really, really rough form. Tough. I wanted to publish it and worry about polishing it later.

7 Responses to "Early Computer Memories"

  1. An F for such a great program? Dude, she must have been really nasty!

    And BASIC is nice. Very nice.

    But an F!? Dude!

  2. I got an F because it didn't do what was specified. It did what was specified PLUS about a hundred other things. In other words, the assignment was "build a wheel" and I built a little car, so, not quite what was asked for.

  3. teachers that stifle creativity. just what our education system needs. :sigh:

  4. Blah. Justin - don't I know it. Similar thing happened to me when I was in middle school learning about programming. I remember writing this LOGO program to create the mandlebrot set (it was that or serpinski triangle), but my teacher was like, "What's this jibberish, I asked you to draw a picture, not some stupid mess on the screen". I was kinda disappointed that 1) he didn't appreciate my hard work, and 2) he didn't realize what it was. *sigh*

  5. In high school some of us who showed an aptitude were asked to be computer lab assistants. That was cool.

    But there was one teacher who was a little less open-minded.

    I didn't usually see his class when I was on duty in the lab so we didn't know each other very well. At the start of the period when he brought his class in I was hacking around on some stuff. He looked over my shoulder and announced that playing games wasn't allowed in the lab. That was true but I wasn't in violation. I explained I wasn't playing a game; I was writing a game. He repeated that games weren't allowed and flipped the power switch off on me.

    Subsequently he became involved with helping one of his students debug her code. I wandered the room helping his other students. He spent most of the period struggling to help this one student. I kept my distance but noted their lack of progress from across the room.

    Just before the end of the period I approached, quickly scanned the code, immediately recognized the issue, and gave the student succinct instructions for the required one line fix.

    In the moment the teacher didn't express his gratitude; he didn't really have anything to say.

    But he also never again questioned my extra-curricular activities.

  6. I had a similar teacher in grade 10. Mrs Higgins, 1st day she said "I just got a computer over the summer so I'll be learning along with you". We had these bunch of 286s and had to do things like spreadsheets and databases. No word of a lie I taught the class. She would tell be to go and help the other students and would live the class. She had this thick Jamaican accent so when she left the class I would impersonate her while helping my classmates. One day she asked me if my work was done, and with out noticing I replied “Ya Man, what jaw talking bout – itss right jhere”. Luckily she found it funny.

    All the kids hated her cause she was clueless, she would come to parent / teacher night stoned cause all the parents would ream her out. At the end of the year she gave me 55% luckily my other tech teacher got it changed to a 98%.

    The other thing I remember was when we got a digital video-editing suite. We had the best in the whole school board. It was a pro system built around a PowerMac 9100 with a Targa 2000 and SCSI. Teacher was suppose to get 3 cheap PC systems but decided to get one good one. But what impressed all the PC kids was not that it had 8GB of SCSI hard drive (this is like ’95 remember) or Gig of Ram or it could edit full screen video – but it had 2 monitors. “How do you get to the other monitor?” they’d ask “You move the mouse there” I’d say – then I’d drag a window from one screen to the other and they’d freak out.

    Good times.

  7. Early computer memories? That's early! I had already sppent 30 years in the business before you arrived, maybe.

    The IEEE put my story on their web site, with the longest address you can imagine, 171 characters, but that's the kind of thing computer programmers are proud of, rather than something that appears to be common sense. I know about programmers, as I hired and trained some of the first couple of thousand of them, ever.

    If you care, go to

    http://www.computer.org/portal/site/annals/menuitem.8933248930f8c11dbe1fbe108bcd45f3/index.jsp?&pName=annals_level1&path=annals/an2004&file=memories01.xml&xsl=article.xsl&

    your comments please

    Jim


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