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Wayback Machine: Hurricane Bob

With Hurricane Sandy currently bearing down on the eastern seaboard, I thought I’d write about my memories of the last hurricane I experienced: Hurricane Bob in 1991.

A little trip in the WABAC Machine:

The summer of 1991 landed between college and graduate school for me. I’d spent June and part of July in New Orleans on a research assistantship at my alma mater, Tulane University, from which I’d graduated in May. Then I came back home to Boston.

Since I was a kid, my parents had been going to Cape Cod for summer vacation. My parents were divorced by this time, so my Mom went down for one week and my Dad for the other week, with my sister Katy and I joining them for both weeks. On this trip, my Dad took the first week. When my Mom arrived on Saturday, August 17 for the second week, I think Hurricane Bob was already on the radar screens.

The catch for me was that my plan was to leave the Cape on Wednesday, August 21, driving up to gather my things and stay with my Dad before driving to grad school at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. But as the week wore on, Bob was looking like a very serious hurricane, and it wasn’t at all clear that I’d be able to leave on time.

The records say that Bob made landfall in Rhode Island around 2 pm EDT on Monday, August 19, and apparently blasted its way across Rhode Island and Massachusetts during the course of the afternoon. The Wikipedia entry on Bob says that, “In Massachusetts, thousands of residents evacuated Cape Cod, leading to an 11 mi backup on the Sagamore Bridge.” We didn’t leave, but stayed in our little cottage.

Halfway out the Cape as we were, the winds were not too bad. I don’t recall thinking we were ever in any real danger, although the power got knocked out pretty early. Our cottage is located near a beach which is one of the few places where you can see the sun set over the water on the east coast, which also meant we were looking towards Boston from the shore. Sometime in the afternoon the winds and rain died down – I think it was more-or-less the (very large) eye of the storm – and I walked down to the beach and saw the very dark clouds drifting northwards in the vicinity of Boston.

We had loaded up on candles, but went to bed early as it was difficult to get much reading (or anything else) done in the pitch dark, even by candlelight.

Tuesday morning we got up. The power was still out, but the storm was over and the sun was out. Walking down to the main road it was easy to see why things hadn’t changed: Dozens of huge tree limbs had fallen on the road, making it impassable to cars. We were stuck there. I don’t remember what we did during the day – I think we’d stocked up on food, and we probably just hung out and read, and walked down to the beach – but it sure didn’t look like I’d be leaving the next morning.

I was wrong: By the next morning, trucks had come through and carted away, or carved up and pushed to the side of the road, every branch on the main road. I think I took my car out and drove around a bit and decided that everything looked safe to drive. So I packed up my car and left.

And sure enough, the drive home was perfectly fine. I was able to make it home, gather up all my things, spend a little time with Dad (I think power was restored around Boston much more quickly), and head off to graduate school exactly as planned. (My various adventures in cross-country driving during college and grad school are a story for another time.)

Mom told me that the power didn’t come on until late in the week, perhaps Friday, and they came home on Saturday, which made for a rather suboptimal vacation for them. I think they went to bed early, got up early, and drove around the Cape looking for things to do that didn’t require electricity.

Apparently this was the first storm during my lifetime to significantly alter the offshore landscape around Chatham Light – the area is significantly different today from when I was a kid. The area there continues to erode and it wouldn’t surprise me if they have to physically move the lighthouse in my lifetime.

I’ve always loved rainstorms, and this was one of the most memorable I’ve experienced. I’ll always remember the view from the beach in the storm’s lull, and my luck at being able to get off the Cape on schedule.

(I hope everyone makes it through Sandy so well!)

Moon Memory

My earliest memory is of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which occurred 40 years ago this week. What’s remarkable about this is that I was barely 6 months old at the time. Yet I remember it with remarkable clarity, and I’m convinced that it’s a real memory.

My specific memory of the landing itself is only of footage of men on the moon on TV, and it’s somewhat fuzzy. We lived in Cleveland, Ohio at the time, so the landing occurred at 3:17 pm local time, and Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface at 9:39 pm local time. Whether we watched his descent as it was originally broadcast or watched a later broadcast or a news summary the next day, I have no idea.

My more specific memory is of my Mom taking me out to the balcony of our apartment at night and directing my attention to the moon, saying “There are people up there!” I recall thinking that I could actually see them on the moon while we were out there, although obviously I was imagining that; I might have even thought that seeing them on TV was the same thing as seeing them directly. It’s hard to say.

It’s possible this is just a constructed memory, although there seems to be a little evidence to suggest that it could be a true memory. I recall details like the little balcony we had, and the metal railing around it, details which were later confirmed to be accurate, which makes it feel real to me, but that’s hardly conclusive. I’ll probably never know, and I’m not really interested in arguing about it.

About returning to the moon? I think Charles Stross addressed the practical obstacles to going back pretty well. More blunt was a cartoon many years ago by Tom Toles which pointed out that there’s nothing on the moon, and nothing on Mars, either. Going there has no evident practical rewards, so the primary motivations for going there are not practical ones – and it’s hard to get funding for that. What practical rewards there are seem to be long-term and rather speculative ones.

I remember as a teenager talking to my friend Rob, who told me that he was frustrated – maybe even angry – that our presence in space had been cut back so much, and that he was probably not going to go into space or walk on the moon in his lifetime. I’m not sure why it’s never bothered me very much. Would it be nice to go into space? Well… maybe. Space travel is a high-risk endeavor, and unlikely to become either cheaper or safer anytime soon. If there were really somewhere to go then I might feel more strongly about it, but just experiencing zero gravity and walking on a dusty rock doesn’t hold a strong appeal for me.

Someday maybe something will change and humanity will finally head out to the planets and the stars. But I think in my lifetime all we’re going to have are our memories.

Q&A: How Did You Get Into Software?

(Ganked from Nadyne.)

I think I was first exposed to computers by a neighbor of mine when I was about 8 or 9 (so, 1977 or 78) who had somehow piqued my interest with some stories of his programming mainframes. He loaned me a book he had on programming in FORTRAN, which I thumbed through but didn’t really understand. I’m not sure it was a very good book, to be honest, although at that point I had no idea what distinguished a good book on programming from a bad book. (It’s not clear to me that most people who write programming books know this either.)

Also around this time I got into video games courtesy of the Atari 2600, which was the most popular (at least in my neck of the woods) game console of its day. There was even a “programming in BASIC” cartridge for the system which I bought with images of programming my own games, but it was a waste of time since its capabilities were, uh, extremely limited. But also around this time a friend of mine, Ben, got a TRS-80 Model I, which actually did have a full BASIC programming language. I borrowed his books on BASIC programming and wrote out – in long-hand on lined paper! – lengthy programs which represented little games. I’d go over to his house and type them in and see if they worked, debug them, etc. It was all totally ad-hoc, but those days I spent lots of time writing and drawing random stuff on paper, so it was right up my alley.

My parents bought me my very own TRS-80 Model III, which must have been when I was 11 or 12 given that it was released in 1980. So I was able to create all my own little games, and I’d also create little animation programs with the rather primitive graphics system. It had a tape drive and 4K of RAM, and I wrote a text adventure game which filled up the whole of memory, and I had to cut corners to get it to fit in. Later it got upgraded to 48K of RAM with a floppy drive. This was the day of computer magazines which printed whole programs in source code, and I subscribed to one: Softside. I especially enjoyed the text adventure games, in which they encoded all of the text strings using a simple algorithm so you wouldn’t have the game spoiled for you while you typed it in. On the other hand, you ended up with some interesting typos in the strings when you ran the program.

(I sometimes wonder if typing in all this stuff from paper helped make me such a fast typist, especially since I’m a two-fingered typist.)

In late 1981 my friend Rob – who at this point qualifies as my oldest friend with whom I’m still in contact – moved in across the street. They had an Apple II+, and we spent many hours on that thing playing Ultima II and watching MTV. This was a big step forward since it had better graphics and color, which my TRS-80 didn’t have. A couple of years later my Mom bought an Apple IIe, which pretty much put my TRS-80 into mothballs.

My next step in actual programming came through playing play by mail games, which inspired me to construct my own turn-based computer games, which my friends would play. I wrote an elaborate system in BASIC to track everyone’s moves and the state of the game, and emit board state to the screen from each player’s perspective (one of the things I thought was neat about these games was that you could only see a limited amount of the board, quite different from real-time board games). Unfortunately I had no idea how to write printer code, so I had to copy all the boards onto paper to hand them out. Did I mention that I had a lot of free time back in the day? (Did I mention that my grades weren’t so great early in high school?)

By senior year of high school I was seriously interested in computer programming, and I signed up for two programming courses at once, a full-time class in Pascal, and a part-time class in BASIC (the instructor insisted I take the latter class in order to take the former). These were my first exposure to structured programming principles. I also worked part-time in the computer lab and had to restructure a program they were using in the office. This was my first experience working with someone else’s code, and it was more than I could handle at the time – it was very slow going. I just shake my head when I reminisce about it, since these days I wade into thousands of lines of code I’ve never seen before on a semi-regular basis.

The other thing to mention here is that Rob’s mother bought one of the very first Macintosh computers, which must have been right in 1984. It had MacPaint and MacWrite, plus of course an ImageWriter. The screen size, graphics, and color were a bit of a letdown compared to the Apple II, but the interface and software made up for that. I still have a paper print-out of a drawing I did in MacPaint on that very machine. I don’t really remember Rob and I using that machine for much more than novelty fiddling around – the Apple II was still the game system – but in senior year – by which time Rob had gone off to college – my new friend Matt also had a Mac, and we spent many, many hours after school at his house playing Dungeon of Doom on it.

In 1987 I headed off to college at Tulane, and although I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, I did want to keep up with programming. Tulane was a little draconian about its computer science courses: I wasn’t able to test out of classes with material I’d already taken, so I spent my freshman year being re-taught stuff I’d learned the year before. Sophomore year, though, we moved on to C more advanced information about how computers work. By the end of the year I’d decided to declare my major in CS, since the competing majors (English and art) were things I thought I could work on on my own without formal collegiate training. (Naturally, I’ve done fairly little creative writing or drawing ever since. Oh well!)

So that’s when I committed to a career in software When I finished college I felt somewhat deficient in my programming skills – in particular, use of pointers in C still baffled me from time to time – so I went off to graduate school at Wisconsin. Although I didn’t get a Ph.D. there, I did have the opportunity to work with an outstanding programmer on a research project and I learned a tremendous amount from studying his code and talking with him about how he designed software.

I was never a Macintosh programmer in the classic days. Whenever I tried to learn Mac programming I was either daunted by the high price of the developer tools (“Hmm, developer tools or four months of comic books…?”) or I would read about what was involved (the APIs and the lack of protected memory) and it just didn’t seem worth it, especially once I had experienced doing programming on UNIX systems. So my first experience with graphics programming was with X Windows. On the bright side, once Apple moved to a UNIX OS with the advent of Mac OS X, that made it an ideal system for my programming background.

When I look back on it, I often feel like I backed into being a programmer. I wasn’t a hacker or prolific programmer like many of my peers at the time, and sometimes I’d wonder if I wasn’t a fraud because programming didn’t consume my hobby time like it did so many other peoples’. But I’ve always tended to spread my time and attention across a variety of hobbies and interests – as even a casual reading of my journal should prove. Despite this I’ve ended up as a solid software engineer (well, I think so, anyway) in my career. Programming isn’t the be-all and end-all of my life, but I still enjoy building things and seeing them work, and all things considered I don’t regret the choices I made to end up where I am.

The Journey is the Reward

I think you need to be fundamentally egotistical in some way to keep an on-line journal or blog. And I mean keep it; anyone can start a journal – LiveJournal is littered with transient and abandoned journals – but actually sticking with it for more than a few entries takes commitment, and commitment takes both a confidence that what you have to say is worth saying.

I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and I know I’m not the most popular blogger around. I think in my salad days I got about 120 hits a day. Lots of bloggers get that many hits in an hour, or heck, that many comments per day. Most of my traffic is probably people surfing in from search engines.

But that’s okay, because it’s been worth it.

A lot of what’s made it worthwhile has been the people I’ve met or corresponded with along the way, some of whom have become friends or provided some helpful suggestions or conversation. I made several good friends in a similar way back in my days of contributing to APAs, and journalling has been similar.

Here are a few people who have helped enrich my life through contact because of my journal:

  • As I’ve mentioned before, C.J. Silverio was my inspiration for starting this journal. We’d encountered each other on-line back in our Usenet days, and we started corresponding more often after I started my journal.

    I still remember in the fall of 1997 we each bought the computer game Riven and spent most of our waking, non-working hours playing it, and exchanging e-mails about our progress. At that time Ceej had a webcam in her home office where I would watcher her playing the game (at a rate of one frame every 5 minutes). I had this very oblique view of her screen, and I’d check her progress and try to figure out where she was. “Where is she? Is she ahead of me? Is she behind me? Have I been there already? What’s she doing?” We ended up finishing at almost exactly the same time. It was a lot of fun.

    When I moved to California, I became friends with her and her husband David. My first two years here we spent a lot of time going to baseball games together, we went through a phase of playing Starcraft on her home network, and even played some Magic. Ceej also provided me with hosting space on Spies.com and later Leftfield.org when I moved out here, and my primary e-mail is still there.

    We don’t see as much of each other these days, but we still keep in touch. I phoned her when Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run, for instance.

  • Two other friends I’ve spent a lot of time with since moving out here are Lucy Huntzinger and Trish. I discovered Trish’s journal back in the day because she was friends with another journaller I read at the time, and then we met in person when I moved out here. Lucy I had connections to through both the journalling community and science fiction fandom. I’ve been to the Exploratorium and the Aquarium with Trish, and the zoo with Lucy, as well as many parties that Lucy has hosted at her house. I still see Lucy from time to time, and Trish a little less often since she moved out of the area. They both helped a lot in orienting me to the area when I moved out here.

    If I recall correctly, I think I introduced Lucy and Trish to each other, and they’ve been close friends ever since. I think they refer to each of themselves as the other’s evil twin.
  • I’ve dated two different women I met through my journal. Adrienne was a woman who had just moved to the area and worked near where I lived. She found my journal and wrote to ask me a question, and we ended up corresponding and then dating for a few weeks. I don’t think I was in a good place for a relationship at the time, and made it more stressful than it needed to be, which was a bad thing considering our lives were both pretty stressful at the time anyway. We haven’t kept in touch since then, but I still remember her fondly.

    And then, Monique was a journaller who had moved to the Bay Area not long after I did. We met at one of Lucy’s parties, and dated for a few weeks. We had a fun time, but I don’t think we were well-matched for a relationship, plus we lived 50 miles apart which was a difficult obstacle to overcome. We still keep in contact occasionally, and read each others’ journals. These days she mainly writes at Big Fat Deal.

    And if you’re wondering, no, Debbi and I didn’t meet through my journal. We met through the mailing list for our 15-year high school reunion (which never happened!).

  • I’ve had two correspondents during the life of my journal with people who simply discovered my journal and found that we had a lot in common. The first was a fellow named Earl Edwards, who I mainly remember because he recommended several jazz artists to me back when I was getting into jazz music in 1998. In particular he recommended Joshua Redman, who’s one of my favorite modern saxophonists. I haven’t heard from Earl in several years (and we’ve never met), and I’m not sure what happened to him.
  • The other guy in this bucket is my friend J.D. Roth. I actually still have the first e-mail he sent me, from September 1998, which concerned science fiction, weight loss, and my justifications for how I decided to buy certain things. J.D. and I have a lot of overlapping interests, and having now met him twice during trips to Portland, I’m sure we could spend a lot of time nattering away if we lived closer together. J.D.’s been keeping a blog since (at least) 2001, and has ended up being a far more successful blogger than me tanks to his popular site Get Rich Slowly.
  • Looking through my archives, I come across the name of several other people I’ve corresponded with over the years: Rebekah Robertson, a lady from the D.C. area who found my journal back in the day and later started one of her own. Dorothy Rothschild, the pseudonym for a woman who kept a journal on Spies.com for several years and whom I met when I was in the midwest. Jan Yarnot, another journaller I corresponded with from time to time. Anita Rowland, who’s been journalling maybe longer than I have, and who’s another science fiction fan. Staffan Kjell, an Apple user in Europe who’s been reading my journal for years.
  • Last but not least, there are the old-time journallers who are still plugging away.

    Diane Patterson has been journalling longer than I have, having marked her 10-year anniversary last year. She used to keep a list of journals older than 1 year, before the advent of things like Blogger and LiveJournal resulted in blogging being too popular to keep such a list. I still have a copy of the last version archived on my machine, which is handy to see who else is still out there. Diane was one of the most prolific and popular journallers back in the day, and one who seemed especially tuned into the rest of the community. Somehow we’ve never actually met.

    And there’s John Scalzi, one of the most popular journallers whom I’d heard of for quite a while, but hadn’t started following until we met at Journalcon 2002 when we were the only two people in the dinner contingent who decided to walk – rather than cab – back to the hotel. He’s a hilariously entertaining smartass who’s also now a published science fiction novelist.

Of course many of my in-person friends and family members read my journal too, but these are all folks that I probably would never have met if I hadn’t been keeping my journal. Ceej and Lucy I might have met through other means, but certainly journalling has had a positive impact on our friendships.

Since journalling is a “pull” activity (a reader has to decide to come to your site and read it, you don’t “push” it out to a group of recipients) you often have no idea who’s reading your journal, and a new reader – a new friend – can appear at any time and without you expecting it. But it’s one really big reason I’m glad I’ve kept up with this as long as I have.

Jumping Into The Abyss

By 1997 I was on the Web with a home page hosted at my ISP, Fullfeed Madison, in Madison WI. I tinkered with it from time to time, archiving some of my old posts from USENET, and writing the occasional essay. I was never that good in the computer graphics department, so it was (and is) pretty basic in its appearance. On the other hand, ever since I launched it, the front page has had the following quote from C.J. Silverio‘s “Rant On Why The Web Sucks”:

It’s the content

The rest of it is window-dressing. You can make your pages look absolutely fabulous but if they don’t say anything, nobody’s going to care. Don’t give the world another glorified multimedia dot-finger file. Give the world your art, your music, your poetry, your political rants, your short stories, your first grade photos, your shareware and freeware, your archives of hobby stuff, your hints about how to make great tie-dye, your really handy Perl script, your list of the ten best bookstores in the Greater Podunk area. You know something that nobody else knows. You can do something that nobody else can do quite the same way. You’ve made something that the rest of the world has never seen.

Share it. Put it in your web page.

(Sadly, the whole essay is no longer up.)

Ceej was a fellow netizen whom I’d encountered back around 1992 on the talk.bizarre newsgroup (which she frequented and I occasionally poked my head into). For some reason long forgotten, I kept track of her over the ensuring few years, and she had the first web page I really paid attention to, and put in my bookmarks. And then forgot about.

In the summer of 1997, two things happened: First, I decided to check in on her web page again, and found that she’d launched an on-line journal. Second, CJ attended the Clarion West writers workshop. And wrote about it every day, starting here.

And oh my god was it riveting stuff. I read through all her archives, and then read each new entry as it was published. And in pretty short order I started thinking seriously of starting my own journal.

I’ve never had great facility for doing graphic design on a computer. Once upon a time I was a fair artist with pencil and paper, but that’s really a completely different medium. But I had some sort of graphic program that I noodled around with to come up with a color scheme and some simple graphics, and I worked out a simple layout for the entries. It wasn’t much, but it was servicible. And, frankly, most journals of the day weren’t much in the graphic design department (some of them were pretty snazzy, but not many people bring both writing and graphic design skills to the table; it’s sort of like being a pitcher who can also hit).

The other thing I’ve never been much good at is coming up with titles. I have no idea today what else I might have come up with as a name for my journal, but eventually I decided that “Gazing Into The Abyss” was the one to go with. I was never very happy with it (one friend remarked years later that my journal couldn’t have been much less like an abyss), but it could have been worse, I suppose.

Coincidentally, I launched my journal on August 6, 1997, which was the same day Ceej wrapped up her Clarion trip.

I was very self-conscious at first, and I wrote the first week or two without telling anyone about it (or even linking to it from my home page). These were in the days before software like WordPress that would automagically notify Technorati of new posts; you either had to go tell people you had a journal, or you had to submit your page to a search engine (AltaVista was the state of the art at the time – Google hadn’t launched yet) so you’d get indexed. So keeping it quiet was pretty easy.

Eventually I took it “live” and did things like signing up with the Open Pages webring, webrings being the main way to publicize your journal at the time. At some point I added an e-mail notification service too (later supplanted by a home-spun RSS feed).

Obviously I got over that self-conscious feeling. You have to have a certain egotism to write an on-line journal, I think: A belief not so much that other people want to read what you’ve written, but that what you’re writing is worth writing in the first place, entry after entry.

Or maybe it’s enough just to have fun writing it.

The State of the Blogophere, 1997

Raise your hand if you remember what the World Wide Web was like in 1997.

Here’s what I remember, and what I can dig up with a little research. Certainly my memories may be faulty, but this is my best stab at it.

The Web itself – in the form we know it today – was only about 5 years old. (I created a Web page in graduate school, circa 1993 or early 1994. It no longer exists. My current home page dates from 1996.) Amazon.com had been launched only two years earlier! And went public in May of 1997! eBay wouldn’t go public for another year! Netscape had just released Netscape Communicator, and the “browser wars” with Internet Explorer were in full swing.

But in the large I think the Web was much as it is today, only smaller, and with people still figuring out how best to use it. HTML was basically the same, JavaScript was around but a little more primitive, people still wrote Java applets embedded in their Web pages, but pages felt less “live” than they do today with stuff like Ajax in them.

Online diaries had been around since at least 1995. By 1997 there were hundreds of diaries – but only hundreds (my guess is about three hundred), compared to the thousands – maybe millions – around today. There was a webring, Open Pages, which would list any diary that wanted to be included. The community had grown large enough for there to be space for specialized webrings, such as Often or Archipelago, but still small enough to have a community-wide mailing list.

People differed over whether they kept “diaries” or “journals”, but it wasn’t a big deal. The term “weblog” had been coined but not yet popularized, and the term “blog” was still in the future. (To my mind, although “weblog” was originally applied to sites which focused mainly on linking to other sites and commenting on them, the terms “diary”, “journal” and “blog” are interchangeable today. Trying to draw a distinction between them is splitting hairs.)

There was no blogging software. People mostly hand-coded their HTML, and often used server side includes to automate some tasks. Assuming their ISP allowed them to write such things – many did not, due to paranoia about security breaches (mostly couched in terms of protecting the users from themselves). RSS was far in the future; people notified readers of new entries via mailing lists.

(There were surely exceptions to all this, but for most journallers, this was how it was.)

Individuals mostly didn’t worry about who would read their journal, or what they might be revealing to current or future employers or family or friends, or whether what they wrote would be archived forever by someone, somewhere. Indeed, people tended to assume the web was ephemeral: A site would be up today, gone tomorrow (possibly because someone freaked out about something and decided to withdraw from everyone). You learned not to rely on the existence of a web page. This is exactly the opposite of what we know to be true today!

So this was the state of affairs in the summer of 1997 when I discovered Ceej’s journal and soon thereafter started reading a half-dozen other journals, and soon considered publishing my own.

More next time.

Ten Years!

As of today I’ve been keeping an on-line journal (which is the same as what the kids call “blogging”) for ten years!

You can still read my first entry. Heck, all my old archives are still available.

While I’ve had periods or greater and lesser prolificacy, I’ve never actually gone on hiatus (planned or unplanned); I’ve been posting away at least a few times a month for that whole time. (I think my low-water marks were September 2003 and April 2006, each with only 3 entries, hardly enough to qualify for the Often Webring.)

I’ve been blogging since before the term “Weblog” was coined!

Over the next week or two I’ll be posting reminiscences about the whole journalling experience. I hope you’ll find them of interest.

I don’t plan to close up shop anytime soon, and I hope you’ll keep reading. As much as I say I keep journalling because it’s something I want to do, it doesn’t mean as much without readers, and I appreciate everyone who checks in to see what I’ve got to say.

Thanks for reading!