Sonntag, September 02, 2007


In this week's Cast-Off, Brenda Dayne mentions learning from her recent computer woes. I can really relate to that. Everything I know about thinking, I learned from coding. In BASIC.

The year that Todd was a baby, Paul and his brother bought a computer for their medical practice. It had one game on it: Cave. I was an instant addict. I would take the kids to the doctor's office, put up gates and give them toys, and play with the computer. This was 1981, so it was not a PC, and it couldn't really do anything other than insurance forms and Cave. Cave wasn't finished. At some point you just came to a dead end. I dimly remember pirates. If you typed in XYZZY it took you back to the beginning.

One day Todd got into the pediatrics fridge and opened all the vaccinations. It didn't hurt Todd but it cost hundreds (thousands?) of dollars to replace them. Paul thought it would be cheaper to just buy me my own computer. Lesson learned: Sometimes you get more by making mistakes than by being good.

I loved my little PC with its 64K modem and green screen. But it couldn't really do anything, either. So I bought a book on computer programming and some BASIC programs to play with. I taught my computer to whistle the Flower Strewing Song from Madame Butterfly. But my book of practice programs left a lot to be desired. I wrote to the publisher and told them that I thought those programs needed to be rewritten to make them more elegant. I didn't tell them I was a college dropout with two years of music theory and German literature under my belt and no programming experience other than Madam Butterfly.

They hired me anyway. They sent me a book called "1001 Things to do with your TRS-80" by Mark Sawusch and asked me to translate it into versions for other computers, since each version of BASIC was a little different. I figured if somebody could do it, I could do it. I was off!

I did Commodore-64; that was easy, they were cheap. I did my cute little PC, of course. I did Apple--that one was cool, because I bought a card for my PC that actually turned it into an Apple. It even made the drives do that weird, grinding chugging noise that old Apple drives made. I got stuck on the graphics, and learned that a teenager in the neighborhood was a whiz at Apple graphics. I subcontracted to Jesse for the graphics, and sometimes hired him to babysit if I didn't have any coding for him to do.

I did Macintosh, and that was back when it was so primitive that it would let you put more files on the floppy disc than its operating system could read. My daughter's music teachers, the Townleys, bailed me out on the Macintosh problems. John, if you're reading this, I still have one of your squeezeboxes. I should get it back to you.

And gradually I discovered that I had a brain. Trouble-shooting computer programs taught me that if the program hangs, you have to step through it one line at a time until you find the mistake. I learned to try just one fix at a time, because if you do several things and it still blows up, you don't know what happened. I learned to compartmentalize my activities, because it's easier to create subroutines that act like neat little packages and make them work as a team than to string life together like a bowl of spaghetti or a bumper card ride.

One day the kids got a video disc stuck in the player. I had never been able to fix anything in my life, but I looked at the video disc player and thought about it like a computer program. I thought about how the kid had put it in, and what it might have caught on, and thought of one thing I could try to get it out. When it came out, I was crying with joy, not because we could now watch TV but because I had actually solved a problem in my life with my brain. My brain! MY brain.

The other thing that caused tears was the unexpected loss of Jesse. One day he went home early from school with a headache, and took a couple of aspirin. Three days later he was dead of Reye's Syndrome. Look it up. Don't take aspirin for a virus.

It's hard to explain why the person I am today was created by computer programming. I never made it past BASIC. When I took a beginning computer class at Tulane in lieu of math (I stink at math, go figure) I had a hard time grasping pointers. The professor had to draw train cars on the blackboard. "This car is Dogbreath. This car is Dogbreath Up-Arrow."

If you do a search on my name on Alibris or AbeBooks, those books still pop up. I never got any royalties, just a flat fee for each version.

And a brain. Don't forget the brain.


Laritza hat gesagt…

Go figure! No wonder you are so good at problem solving (knitting is what I can attest to) Fun times! you should get back into it. It is way way fun and easier today.

KnitNana hat gesagt…

My bet? You'd be good at math - in the right situation. B/c you can't do what you do with programming without having what it takes to do math, too. Just need the right teacher...(and no, I'm not the right one...I had one who was fantastic, tho', many, many years ago)
I'm delighted you found your brain - it's such a wonderful friend to have, you know?

Eileen hat gesagt…

I love Colossal Cave! xyzzy -- need to put that on my car license plate.

Anonym hat gesagt…

Great minds--I was just looking up Cave this weekend too. I have fond memories of playing that game after church at the doctor's office. And doing black-and-green art on the green screen monitor.


Lynn hat gesagt…

What a neat, neat post. Thank you for including the harp duet in the other post. Now I need to go find my "Corrs" CD and sing along to the ones in English. Assuming that I haven't already packed it.

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