My journey, Part 1

This series of posts has been brewing within me for more than a year, though for some reason it just never felt like the right time to talk about it. Two months ago I found The Machine That Changed The World online, a mini-series I had seen about 15 years ago. I was going to just write about it here, but then all this other stuff came out of me, and it became about that, though I’ve included it in this series.

I go through things chronologically, though I only reference a few dates, so one subject will tend to abruptly transition into another, just because of what I was focused on at a point in time. I call this “my journey”.

Getting introduced

From when I was 6 or so, in the mid-1970s, I had had a couple experiences using computing devices, and a couple brief chances to use general purpose computers. My interest in computers began in earnest in 1981. I was 11 going on 12. My mother and I had moved to a new town in Colorado a year earlier. One day we both went by the local public library and I saw a man sitting in front of an Atari 400 computer that was set up with a Sony Trinitron TV set. I saw him switch between a blue screen with cryptic code on it, and a low-rez graphics screen that had what looked like a fence and some blocky “horses” set up on a starting line. And then I saw the horses multiply across the screen, fast. The colorful graphics really caught my eye. I was already used to the blocky graphics of the Atari 2600 VCS. I had seen those around in TV ads and stores. I sat and watched the man work on his project. Each time he ran the program the same thing happened. After watching this for a while I got the impression that he was trying to write a horse racing game, but that something was wrong with it.

My mother noticed my interest and tried to get me to ask the librarian about the computer, to see if I could use it. I was reticent at first. I assumed that only “special” people could use it. I figured the man worked at the library or something, or that only adults could use it. I asked the librarian. She asked my age. They had a minimum age requirement of ten years old. She said all I needed to do was sign up for an orientation that lasted for 15 minutes, and then sign up for computer time when it was available. So at my mother’s urging I signed up for the orientation. Several days later I went to orientation with about five other people of different ages (children and adults), and got a brief once-over about how to operate the Atari, how to sign up for time, and what software they had available for it behind the desk.

I was interested right off in learning to do what I saw that man do: program the computer. My first stab at this was running a tutorial called An Invitation to Programming that came on 3 cassette tapes, double-sided. The tape drive I put the tapes into looked like an ordinary tape recorder, except that it had a cable running right to the computer. I thought the tutorial was the neatest thing. At first I think I was distracted by how it worked and paid hardly any attention to what it was attempting to teach. The fascinating thing about it was the first part of each tape had a voice track on it that would play over the TV’s speaker while the tutorial loaded. This was really clever. Rather than sitting there waiting for the program to load, I could listen to a male narrator talk about what I was going to learn with some flashy music playing in the background. By the time he was done, the tutorial ran. Once it started running the voice track started up again, this time with a female narrator. What appeared on the screen was coordinated with the audio track. When the tutorial would stop to give me a quiz, the tape drive would stop. When I was ready to continue, the tape drive started up again. “How is it doing this,” I wondered with awe.

Introduction to “An Invitation to Programming” by Atari

Part 4 of “An Invitation to Programming”

By the way, this is not me using the tutorial. I found these videos on YouTube.

The tutorial was about the Basic programming language. I went through the whole thing two or three times, in multiple sessions, because I could tell as I got towards the more advanced stuff that I wasn’t getting it. I only understood the simple things, like how to print on the screen, and how to use the Goto command. Other stuff like DIMming variables, getting input, and forming loops gave me a lot of trouble. They had the manual for Atari BASIC behind the desk and I tried reading that. It really made my head hurt, but I came to understand more.

Eventually I found out there was an Atari 800 in another part of the library that I could sign up for, so I’d sometimes use that one. There seemed to be more people who would hang around it. I found a couple people who were more knowledgeable about Basic and I’d ask them to help me, which they did.

I fell into a LOT of pitfalls. I couldn’t write a complete program that worked, though I kept trying. Every time I’d encounter an error I’d guess at what the problem was, and I would try changing something at random. I had no context. I felt lost. I needed a lot of help from others in understanding different contexts in my program.

It took me a month or two before I had written my first program that went beyond “hello world” stuff. It was a math quiz. Over several more months I stumbled a lot on Basic but kept learning. I remember I used to get SO frustrated! Time and again I would think I knew what I was doing, but something would go wrong. Debugging felt so hard. I’d go home fuming. I had to practice relaxing.

As time passed a strange thing started happening. I’d go through my “frustration cycle,” focus on something else for the day, have dinner with my mom and talk about it, watch TV, do my homework, or something. I’d go to bed thinking that this problem I was obsessed with was insurmountable. I’d wake up the next morning, and the answer would just come to me, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. I couldn’t try it out right away, because I had to get to school, but all day I’d feel anxious to try out my solution. Finally, I’d get my chance, and it would work! Wow! What a feeling! This process totally mystified me. How was it that at one point I could be dealing with a problem that felt intractible, and then at another time, when I had the opportunity to really relax, the problem was as easy to solve as brushing my teeth? I have heard recently that the brain uses sleep time to “organize” stuff that’s been absorbed while awake. Maybe that’s it.

When I entered Jr. high school I eventually discovered that they had some computer magazines in their library. A few of them had program listings. One of them was a magazine called Compute!. I fell in love with it almost immediately. The first thing that drew me in was the cover art. It looked fun! Secondly, the content was approachable. It had complete listings for games. I went through their stack of Compute issues with a passion. I was checking them out often, taking them to the public library to type in to the Atari, debugging typing mistakes, and having fun seeing the programs come to life.

We had two Apple II’s at my school, one in the library that I could sign up for, and one that a math teacher had requested for his office. In my first year there he started a computer club. I signed up for the club immediately. Each Friday after school we would get together. There were about four of us, plus the math teacher, huddled around his computer. He would teach us about programming in Basic, or have us try to solve some programming problem.

Along the way I got my own ideas for projects to do. I wrote a few of my own programs on the Atari at the library. By my eighth grade year my school installed a computer lab filled with Apple II’s, and they offered computer use and programming classes. I signed up for both. In the programming course we covered Basic and Logo.

Logo was the first language I worked with where programming felt easy. Quite frankly the language felt well designed, too, though my memory is that it didn’t get much respect from the other programmers my age. They saw it as a child’s language–too immature for us teenagers. Then again, they thought “real programming” was making the computer do cool stuff in hexadecimal. Every construct we used in Logo was relevant to the platform we were using. Unfortunately all we learned about with Logo was procedural programming. We didn’t learn what it was intended for: to teach children math. After this course I got some more project ideas which I finished successfully after a lot of work.

In the computer use course we learned about a couple word processors (Apple Writer, and Bank Street Writer), Visicalc, and a simple database program whose name I can’t remember. I took it because I thought it would teach useful skills. I had no idea how to use any of these tools before then.

Part 2

7 thoughts on “My journey, Part 1

  1. Pingback: The 150th post « Tekkie

  2. @EdS:

    Thanks for pointing out the broken link. I’ve fixed it. I’ve referred to this documentary several times in this blog. I noticed a broken link to it in one of my other posts just the other day, and fixed that. I haven’t fixed all the broken links yet.

    I originally found this series through “waxypancake” and his website waxy.org. In reviewing old posts last year, I noticed that for some reason my links to waxy’s videos were no longer working, and I couldn’t figure out why. So I switched to some YouTube links, but as you point out, those have gone “stale.” Waxy’s videos were stored at viddler.com, and back when I posted about the series here, viddler was not compatible with WordPress. The WordPress service uses custom tags for videos, and doesn’t allow Javascript embedding, as far as I know. WordPress had me using Vodpod as a “pass-through” to embed incompatible videos. It worked, but I read the other day that Vodpod went under in 2012. I switched back to waxy’s videos, and for some reason they work again. For one thing, viddler now provides the compatible links I need so I can put videos from there directly into my posts, without going through another service. So I’ll be switching back to waxy’s videos. He’s had his versions up for years now.

    He and a few others managed to find some VHS tapes of this documentary and digitized it. I’m so glad he did! This documentary is impossible to find in modern physical media, which is such a shame, because it was IMO the best documentary yet on computer history.

    Re. retro computing

    I like a little of that for reminiscing. The best thing has been getting the chance to meet people online who created the computer magazines I used to read, or created the computers I used to use. Seeing people put emulators of old computer systems on the web is pretty encouraging. 🙂

  3. @edrandom:

    No, I haven’t seen the rebuilds site. One of my old CS prof’s got into development of FPGAs in the mid-1990s. I caught up with him about 6 years ago, and he was teaching an undergrad course using FPGAs, having students build a Connect 4-style video game console from scratch. Neat stuff.

  4. Speaking of rebuilds, I really liked seeing this by Corey Renner, building a working Atari 1450XLD. This was about reverse-engineering, but it involved a rebuild. He ended up putting the motherboard into a 1400XL case.

    I had no idea how difficult this would be to build. For one thing, there were only something like 13 prototypes built. So they’re difficult to find, and only a couple people (IIRC), including Renner, had managed to get one to work. I suppose the same principle could apply in the future, where people will be able to create modern rebuilds from these prototypes, now that the specs are known.

    Just like Renner, I remember salivating over the 1400XL and the 1450 back when they were announced, and I was disappointed when I heard Atari would not be releasing them. Based on the quoted price, I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford them, but I so wanted to try them out! I lost my desire for them, though, when I got my 130XE 5 years later. It had twice the memory, and I could get a faster modem, even an 80-column display if I wanted.

    I’m more into the software end of things right now, though perhaps someday I’ll get into hardware. As Alan Kay said, “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

  5. Pingback: Favorites from Antic–The Atari 8-bit podcast | Tekkie

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