Friday, April 1, 2011

From Analog to Digital


I learned to type in my senior year of high school. I was about the only boy in the class. We used manual machines that would jam if you pushed two keys at once. At the end of each line you had to push a lever on the right side of the machine to move the carriage over so you could begin a new line of the left margin of the page. To pass the course, you had to be able to type 35 words per minute with only one or two errors. I passed. Barely.

When I went off to college in 1969, I took along with me a little portable manual typewriter because “everybody” said that it would be better to type up whatever papers I might need to present in whatever courses I might be taking. I used that typewriter to write letters home, letters wherein I lied about how hard I was studying and told the truth about how much money I needed. I never used the typewriter for coursework since the only course work I actually turned in was in music theory, and you can’t type music on a portable typewriter. Since I had no idea why I was even attending college, naturally, I failed to maintain an adequate grade point average to permit me to stay there. I was not particularly unhappy about that fact in that I had no real reason to be there in the first place, other than some faddish notion of the time that “everybody” needed to attend college. The maxim was: If you don’t go to college, you won’t be able to get a good job.

As it turned out, that part about needing a college degree to get a good job was mostly true. I’ve had quite a few jobs in my life with very few of them qualifying as what I would consider “good.” My definition of a “good” job has always been one that would allow me to use my creative abilities to solve interesting problems in exchange for enough money to live comfortably during those hours when I am not working. Somewhere in that definition there should be something about “minimal supervision,” since my ideal employment situation would include being given the problem and the physical resources to deal with it and then turned loose to get it done. All the times I’ve gotten in trouble as an employee were a result of my trying to implement that ideal and not taking into account the fact that employers want to be able to tell you what to do, how to do it, how much time it should take and what resources should be required. That would be fine, if said employer requesting the specified job knew whereof what he spoke. Usually, that was not the case.

In my working life, I’ve always worked at finding better, more efficient ways of doing things and have then proceeded to do them that way. Most of the time, the employer wants the job done some other way and he and I end up at odds this. To sum up the problem, I enjoy myself and do well when I am working with someone, and I am miserable and bored when I work for someone. Given these facts, you can see why I work much better, more efficiently with myself and by myself then I do in a regimented group. If you also guessed that my confrontations with my employers were frequent and sometimes heated, you’d be correct.

The first computer I ever saw was being used at the first “real” job I ever held. My father got me a job with a company for which he was working as the national sales manager. The company made industrial florescent lighting fixtures in its own factory in Denver, Colorado. The sheets and rolls of steel came in on the receiving dock and the finished products went out on the company trucks at the shipping dock. In between these two doors, the steel was pressed, formed, washed, painted, assembled, boxed and stacked in the warehouse ready to be loaded on the trucks. When I first started there, I spent all day hanging parts on the paint line. Eventually I graduated up to receiving clerk and warehouseman. Up at the front of the factory inside a large room with windows from the middle of the walls to the ceiling were several tall machines with tape drives on the front of them. In the middle of the room there were punch card readers, and I suppose somewhere there were card punching consoles. They used this computer system to process the payroll for the factory. It may have had other functions, but that’s the one I know for sure that it performed. I could see it from the lunchroom while I was eating the food I bought from the blind guy who manned the cash register in the cafeteria. The blind guy also played a pretty mean piano; by ear, of course. I worked there for about three years until I was fired for coming to work late every day. I wasn’t the only one who did that, but I was the one they chose to make an example of so that the others who were also chronically tardy would knock it off. I wonder if it worked. Probably not, since the company went out of business a short time later.

If the next company I worked for had a computer, I never saw it. Computers were pretty large in those days, so I guess if they had had one I’d have seen it. What they did have was lots and lots of cardboard and I helped them make cardboard boxes until I got so thoroughly bored with my job and my life that I left Denver entirely. My dad had gotten let go from the lighting fixture company in the meantime and had moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado where he was selling cars for the local Chevrolet Dealership. He got me a job in the parts department. There was no computer there either, but there was a pretty cool tape punching machine that we used to order parts from General Motors. You’d punch in the part numbers and quantities and out would come this long strip of tape about an inch wide with holes in it that in some fashion communicated the ordering information to GM when we loaded it up into the tape reader and dialed the factory’s number. It was a wonderful machine, but like I said, it wasn’t a computer.

The next computer I saw was an Apple //e. That’s how Apple printed “II” using the “/” marks. Very cute, eh? I thought it was an interesting and, more important, potentially useful tool that might be of some value in the secretarial service my wife had recently purchased. When she bought the business, she had the idea that she would type a few letters, answer the phone once in a while and spend the rest of the time reading a book, thereby generating enough income to make it worth her while, but not so demanding that she couldn’t sit back and enjoy herself once in a while. I suggested that if we bought this little computer, we could offer additional services and, perhaps, attract a few more clients. The idea appealed to her and the prospect of us working together in that business was attractive to us both, so we bought the little computer. I took it out of the box, set it up in the living room and proceeded to read the instructions. Reading instructions is probably the thing that I do the best. Almost everything I’ve learned thus far, I have learned from reading instructions, everything from computers to vehicle maintenance, from drawing to guitar.

I made that little Apple //e do all kinds of stuff. I word processed, I kept the books, I created spread sheets. I created proposals, terms papers, letters, and at one point I even wrote a book on it for a client. It was a great little machine and it always did its best. Carol answered calls on the 27 phone lines, took messages, typed letters on her typewriter, took in new work, and handle client relations. We were very busy and it was a lot of fun, but Carol did miss the days when there was time to just sit and read. When we sold the business and moved to Los Angeles, I brought that computer along with me. I used it for a number of projects which I did out of my home, including the aforementioned book. Sadly, though, the state of the art for computers raced on past the little Apple //e and I was forced to move on to what everyone in Los Angeles seemed to be using at that time – DOS-based PCs.

I started working out of other peoples’ offices using their equipment. I ran into a computer called a Vector that ran on a CP/M operating system that was being used to merge address lists with form letters. I input a lot of data into that Vector, but that machine was obsolete even before I started operating it and was soon replaced by some PCs; PCs without hard drives. Everything in those PCs was operated from 5.25” floppy discs, from the operating system to the programs. I learned how to merge data with form letters using lots and lots of discs. It was slow, but it was more personalized than just sending out a “Dear Customer” letter. I entered thousands of names and addresses and saved them to discs. That high school typing class has served me well. It’s the one thing I learned in high school that I have found useful.

I worked with operating systems from CP/M to DOS to Windows 3.11 to Windows 95 to Windows XP to Windows Vista and finally to Windows 7. Why it’s called Windows 7, I don’t know. 3.11 was a good system, so was XP, after Service Pack 2. So far, Windows 7 is pretty stable and works most of the time. I’ve always been amazed at how an operating system that is supposed to manage the computer’s memory in such a way as to allow you to run many programs at the same time, does its job so badly. Yet, a great many of us still buy each new version of this system hoping that, perhaps, someday it will perform as advertised.

Don’t get me wrong. I like computers. They are wonderful tools that have evolved from very simple calculating machines to devices that allow us to communicate with the world, do our own taxes, keep our bank accounts and investments under control, watch TV programs, play games, keep track of our friends and relatives on a second by second basis, and find information on all sorts of things, some of which is actually valuable and useful. Of course, there’s also a gargantuan amount of garbage available as well, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between the valuable and the worthless, especially in an era where judgment is frowned upon and the line between good and evil has been intentionally blurred. Not a problem for me, though. I can tell the difference. If no credible source is cited, then it’s trash. If it sounds too good to be true, bet on it being a lie.

Having grown up using computers, I understand their value. I also understand their short comings. They are a tool and that is the way it is best to think of them. As the internet continues to grow, as the web of communication lines continues to expand, there is the possibility of there coming into being a great international community where information can be freely exchanged. To some degree that is happening already, but unlimited information flow is dangerous to those people who would keep their citizens in chains, both mental and physical. It will be interesting to see what the future brings as more and more people connect across the web and find out that they are not alone in their desire for freedom, that those people in other countries all have very much the same desires, wants and needs. People want to be free to create, to think, to learn, to move about, to speak, to share ideas, to experience new things and make new friends. This is dangerous to those with a vested interest in making people think of themselves as slaves and victims, who depend upon fear to control the population. This is dangerous to those leaders who would convince their people that some other people are their enemy. What if people just got to know about one another, about how they each lived out their lives? What if it turned out that those other people weren’t actually the enemy? Knowledge and communication are extremely powerful and dangerous tools to put in the hands of an entire world. That’s how ideas get spread around and ideas are the most dangerous things of all. Ideas can lift up a whole nation, even a whole world. They can also bring it all the way down.

Me? I’m all for those ideas which raise man up, which lead to more freedom, which encourage man to create and produce and exchange. That’s what I’m promoting here on my little virtual homestead on the incredibly vast worldwide web. I encourage you to do the same in whatever way you can. Communicate. Share. Uplift. Enlighten. Be dangerous. Connect. Compute.