Friday, May 09, 2014

Geek Memories: Computers and Me, Part One!

I've had a long association with computers... and as with anything I've had a long association with, sometimes it's nice to look back and see where it all began... and how that led me on a path to today!

The first computer I used was Radio Shack's TRS-80. I had two friends who had one... Mark Grochowicz and Warren Wheeler. Mark was a buddy of mine I met through the science fiction club I've talked about here and there, the same age as me, while Warren was a year younger than me who I met in school. I met Mark in 1978, when I was a sophomore in high school, and Warren the following year. I only got together with Mark on the weekends to play role playing games with as well as computer games, while I could get together with Warren after school.

I started learning BASIC with Warren on his computer, usually entering in programs manually into his TRS-80 from computer magazines. Sometimes we'd go onto a BBS to get stuff downloaded, such as a Mr. Spock poster that was printed out on a dot matrix printer (all using letters, numbers and punctuation to make the image, which you'd have to step away from to really see). The early modems were extremely slow, so downloads of the simplest of items took forever.

One program that we had on Warren's computer was a music program, and we used it to imput the melody of the Cantina Band song from Star Wars... it took quite a bit of work to get it input given the limited length allowed in the program, setting up repeats that weren't in the original sheet music.

With Mark, one of the games we played most often with our other gaming friends was M.U.L.E., a multiplayer game that was saved on cassette tape. It would take close to an hour to load into the computer, and once it was running, we all picked alien races to develop a new colony on the planet Irata (Atari spelled backwards), picking plots to develop. We played this game a lot, to the point that I still had fond memories of it to this day, and when I learned a new version had been created for the iPad, I gladly purchased it, and have played it quite a bit. Now that I think of it, this game may have been played on a Commodore 64, and not a TRS-80... so that was what Mark would've had.

By my senior year of high school, 1980-1981, the school had started a computer class, which I gladly signed up for. This was an easy A for me, as I usually already knew how to write the necessary program before it was taught in class. Oh, I did learn a few things here and there... such as how to round off a number to two decimal points (a requirement for one class). Because I had previous programming knowledge, I'd often do more than what was expected of me. For example, one program required us to write a program that would generate paychecks based on different people's hours and pay rates. Most of the other students had all of the information written into the program, but I decided instead to write the program so that each "employee" would have their name, hours and pay rate input manually. The computers in this class were Apples, although I don't recall what model (probably the Apple II or Apple IIe).

As I said, I got an easy A out of the class, especially since I did every bit of extra credit work available. This led me to signing up at a local technical school to take Computer Programming after I graduated from High School. I was warned after I took the aptitude test that my results were so high that I'd find myself bored with the class, but I chose not to listen. This was a mistake. A month or so into this class (which used Wang computers), I did indeed get bored, because there was a major focus on accounting, which I really can't stand. It didn't help that there weren't enough computers for every student in the class, so we spent most of our time sitting at tables doing our work. So I quit that class.

The next step in my computer history was when I went into the Navy in 1983 as a journalist. Believe it or not, we didn't have computers in the school I went to after boot camp... instead, it was when I got to my first ship that I started using a dedicated word processing computer. I forget who manufactured that, but I learned how to use the program very quickly... and my typing speed increased dramatically. I also picked up a Commodore computer while on this ship, which I used initially just to prepare on-screen text for the closed circuit TV that I ran in the evenings. I didn't do any programming on this at all, other than what was needed to generate the titles.

Let me back up a bit here... I took two different classes in junior high school that included typing, and honestly, I didn't do well in either one of them. I was able to type quickly, but both classes emphasized not looking at the keyboard or the paper you were typing on, so it was difficult to catch mistakes and correct them. My typos worked against my typing speed. After taking those classes, I wasn't turned off of typing, though... my dad had a typewriter, and I started developing an interest in writing short stories, so I would use my dad's typewriter to type them out, after first writing them out longhand. Eventually, I got to the point where I'd write at the keyboard, but that wasn't until the summer between junior and senior high.

In high school, I didn't do much typing for school stuff until my junior year, when I got into the journalism class, which I took for two years, spending one semester in my senior year as the editor. No computers here, either... in order to get our text typeset justified, we had to write out our stories on graph paper, indicating where to add extra spaces to justify each line. Later, when I was doing the newsletter for the sci-fi club, I used this same method to justify the text for that.

So with all that, I was very happy to be using a dedicated word processing program that would allow me to fix typos and automatically justify the text when I wanted... and my speed and accuracy improved. By the time I was transferred to my second ship, I was quite the expert on this system, which they also used on that ship -- and I got quickly assigned to work on the ship's newspaper. I would take the AP and UPI news stories that were received and rework them from broadcast to print format and get the newspaper prepared each day out at sea.

While I was on this ship, I was able to reconnect with Mark Grochowicz, who also went into the Navy about the same time I did. Our ships were home ported in San Diego, so we were able to get together when neither of us were at sea. Mark had bought a portable Commodore 64 that he was tiring of, and I bought it from him. This thing was the size of a small suitcase, with a screen not too much bigger than my iPhone has today. I had a few programs for this, saved on floppy discs (thank goodness the days of cassette tapes were over with!). One that I really enjoyed was one that would let you create your own games, and my favorite one was called "Khaki Invaders," which basically was a way for enlisted men to work out their frustrations with the officers. A few copies of this game got distributed to others on the ship, and I have no idea if copies went offship.

But the most important thing that happened on that ship was when we got a Macintosh SE on the ship to use for preparing text for the cruisebook. A cruisebook is like a yearbook, prepared during an extended deployment to help the crew preserve the memories of the voyage, with pictures of the crew, articles about places we visited, and more. Our cruisebook representative provided us with this and a laser printer, and we had permission to use it to put together the newspaper and other projects as well.

The Mac was my first time using a mouse and a graphic user interface... and I immediately fell in love with it. It all made sense to me in a way that previous computers did not. There was no typing in of commands, and you could organize things pretty much how you wanted. Oh, the screen was small, and it was all black and white, but it was the best thing I could imagine. Not only did I use it for preparing text and layouts (maybe this was what really sold me on it, PageMaker eliminated the messiness of manually pasting up layouts, freeing me up to be creative rather than neat), but I also learned how to use MacPaint, a very basic painting program that gave me a head start when I first encountered PhotoShop.

Unfortunately, when the ship came back from its deployment and the cruisebook was done, the Mac went away... until the next deployment. I really missed the Mac during that time between the cruises, and I was already making plans to continue working with the Mac after I got out of the Navy and back into the civilian world.

Next time around... I'll continue looking back at my personal history of computers!

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