Wednesday, January 31, 2007

You are only as old as the keyboard you feel

It's easy to forget how young computing is still. Or maybe it's just easy to forget how old I'm getting.

I recently had reason to remind myself about the projects I have worked on in my professional career, and that required some archeology through my old papers and notebooks. What really struck me was how recent the dates appear to be -- surely 1997 wasn't that long ago? and yet 10 years ago we were nowhere near where we are today with the connectivity, Internet, wireless commuting, portable devices, and so on.

If I go further back in time to university, and pre-university days things get really interesting. I really can't remember what prompted my interested in computing, but I recall vividly the trips I made as a schoolboy to the University of Bradford Computer Centre as a guest, looking round the machine rooms and punched tape/card terminals etc.

I took it upon myself to travel on the bus for an hour each way every Wednesday afternoon to use their teletype machines (I bet a random kid couldn't show up and use their machines today!) There was great excitement when they got six Commodore PETs. You could book an hour session on the PET, and I spent many of those PEEKing and POKEing various memory locations described in computer magazines of the day to create some kind of external effect -- and typing in long sequences of BASIC to implement something like the Eliza pseudo-therapist programme.

The first computer that I owned was a TRS-80 portable PC. I remember pestering my dad to buy it for Christmas one year. He is a gadget person, so probably didn't need much persuading really, but he put up a good pretence. That gift probably cemented my future choice of career. I spent many hours programming that thing, and over time I bought the tape deck interface and 16-character per line printer too!

Once things got established I went with my dad to choose a desktop -- and we spent a few hours at a very stylish showroom with four computers proudly on display, spotlit and surrounded by black curtains. We ordered an Apple IIe, and waited eagerly for it to be delivered (you couldn't just buy one off the shelf in those days). It was a great machine. Green screen and limited graphics, etc., but enough for me to write a pretty decent application to track some data on employees and customers in my dad's business. I submitted that application as part of my O-level Computer Studies, the first year it was offered in the UK.

To make a long story short, I later went off to study Computer Science at university, and at some point was the proud owner of an Atari Portfolio. I bought an Amstrad PCW to write up my thesis, and shortly after went mobile with an Apple PowerBook 100, and later replaced the Portfolio with a Palm Pilot (I craved an Apple Newton, but never bought one).

Since then it has been a succession of heartless PC clones, that look really boring and are only differentiated by the chips in them with different numbers.

It's fun to look back and see that old stuff. It brings back many memories of happy hours tapping on keyboards, the people who so generously gave of their time, knowledge, and enthusiasm to help some kid who could give nothing back to them -- which is very humbling, would I be so helpful and accommodating?

And when the time comes to bounce my grandchildren on my knee, I won't be telling them about fighting for my country in foreign lands, or how I had to work my way through crushing poverty through hard manual labour; I'll tell them how I have programmed everything from teletypes to a supercomputers. Will they be impressed? They'll probably laugh.