Dr. Marvin Morillo

This is Teacher Appreciation Week, with National Teacher Day being tomorrow, so I figured it’s time to finish this entry about a teacher of mine who’s been on my mind recently.

I wasn’t a very good fit for Tulane University. But no other college I applied to thought I was a good enough fit to accept me. So in the fall of 1987 off I went from Boston to New Orleans, the land of heat, humidity, booze, a high murder rate, conservative politics, and seafood, none of which agreed with me. (Okay, I came around on the booze, to some extent.)

Very much on-brand for me as a teenager, I had little idea how to get started in college. I took computer programming (they wouldn’t let me skip the intro class, even though I already knew everything in it and did well on the AP test), German (a year off from it in high school did nothing for my already shaky grasp of the language, and it was my last hurrah at trying to learn something other than English), studio art, and English.

Dr. Marvin Morillo was the teacher of that freshman English class. My recollection is that he was an older man of average height (which is to say, several inches shorter than I was), with white hair and a goatee. I now know that he turned 61 at the start of the semester.

My memories of college are at the point where they’re fading and merging together, and so are no longer very trustworthy. I recall the classrooms in the English department building were often small – holding maybe 16 people – arranged around a large table, with soft lighting and a lot of wood decor.I don’t really remember any of the other students in the class, and I don’t clearly remember the books we read anymore either, but I know there were four, of which two were Hiroshima by John Hersey, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. I thought one was called The Infinite Journey, but I can’t find a book with that title which matches my memory of it. I think the fourth had something to do with space. Only 4 books across 12ish weeks of classes, but that meant we could get into them in depth. I had been generally uninspired by my high school English classes, and I didn’t have the learning skills to know how to get value out of them. This started changing in this class.

In particular Hiroshima is an extremely powerful chronicle of the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb on that city, and Dr. Morillo did a fine job of taking us through the events of the book, and reinforcing the book’s point that this must never be allowed to happen again. Honestly he started the class with the best stuff, and the later books felt weak by comparison.

I’d like to say that I have keen memories of lively debates about the books in the class, but I don’t. That’s what I’ve got left, 36 years later. But I felt like I connected strongly with Dr. Morillo, and I started swinging by his office from time to time over the next few years. He had a small office which I remember being lined by books in bookcases, with a desk at one end by the window, and a lounge chair for visitors. I don’t remember what we talked about any longer, but I know I always enjoyed visiting, and he was always open to my visits if he wasn’t busy.

In hindsight, in my late teens and twenties I befriended several older men who I learned from. Three of them were friends I met through Amateur Press Associations, and all of them were generalists, with a variety of interests, often with connections among those interests. The impression in my memory of Dr. Morillo is that he also had a breadth of interests, and that we’d end up talking about nothing in particular whenever I’d visit.

But he was also a Shakespeare professor as his main focus. By senior year I was deep in my major in computer science, and was looking at a year of nothing but programming and related topics. Figuring I should have a little bit of variety, I signed up for Dr. Morillo’s senior Shakespeare class in the fall, and enjoyed it so much that I signed up again in the spring.

In contrast to the freshman class, this was a lot of reading – more than a play a week (and it focused on the plays, with only a little time spent on the poems). This was more than I could get through, especially when we got to the long plays (Hamlet, King Lear and Richard III), so I concentrated on the ones I knew we’d be discussing in class or had to write a short paper on. Nonetheless, I had a great time. I had by this point been heavily involved in criticizing Star Trek: The Next Generation on the USENET newsgroups, which might have helped me hone my critical literary skills that I could deploy in these classes.

I have two enduring memories of these classes. The first was of being cornered by a group of women who asked me who I was having showed up in these senior English classes when they hadn’t seen me before as they’d been going through their major. I told them that I was a CS major and that I was taking these classes for fun, which I think annoyed them somewhat (I guess the classes had a reputation for being hard).

The second was of sitting outside the English department in mid-December (New Orleans, remember? I may have even been in shorts), when Dr. Morillo walked up and asked what I was doing. I said, “I’m trying to get through the plays I wasn’t able to read during the semester, before the final.” He replied, “Well, I’m not sure if I should applaud you for trying to finish all the reading, or upbraid you for not finishing it when it was assigned.” Chuckles all around at that one.

And yes, I got A’s both semesters. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get an A in the freshman class, but I’d learned a lot in three years. Mostly about how to study.

My favorite Shakespeare play is Richard II. “Don’t you mean Richard the Third?” people ask when I say this, but no, I actually think III is pretty tedious to read. I appreciate in Richard II the inevitable downfall of, well, everyone involved: Richard is a bad king, and he’s overthrown because he’s a bad king, but the Divine Right of Kings dictates that England will be in a bad way because of his overthrow, culminating in the detestable Richard III. So it’s a bad situation with no good solution (within the parameters of Shakespeare’s setting), and its events lead to 7 more plays of troubles until things are finally resolved. It appeals to both the structure wonk in me.

I’ve never seen the play performed, and maybe it’s just no good on stage, but it really captured me in class.

I think I went by to say goodbye to Dr. Morillo when I graduated. I have a dim memory of doing so, but at this point maybe it’s more of a memory of intending to do so. I hope that I did.

Recently I was curious to find out what happened to him. He retired just a couple of years after I graduated, in his mid-60s, and moved to Washington state, where he lived until he passed away in 2015. It sounds like he had a good life after Tulane (as, to be honest, have I). I regret not thinking of trying to reconnect when I had the chance, and that my memories of him aren’t clearer but I’m glad to have known him.

Memory Lane: Audio Equipment

Earlier this year I finally got rid of something I’d owned for over 30 years, an Aiwa AD-WX808 dual cassette deck.

Growing up my parents – well, really my dad – had a component stereo system with a record player, receiver, and speakers. At some point one of them bought me an all-in-one record player/radio/tape deck which I used through high school. I remember the first LP I bought was the Return of the Jedi soundtrack. And during high school I bought a lot of 45 RPM singles, and a few LPs. As I say occasionally, I wasn’t really into 80s music, so I was more likely to have MTV or a local radio station on in the background than listen to music that I owned. I also had a few Walkman and competing products for playing tapes and listening to the radio, which I used pretty regularly. And at some point we got a boombox which we mostly used downstairs.

All this largely changed in college, when I discovered 60s and 70s rock music. My gateway drug – oddly enough – was Styx, but I soon moved on to The Who and various progressive rock groups. A guy down the hall from me had a boom box with a compact disc player, and I bought a few CDs that year.

That summer – 1988 – I researched and bought my own component stereo system. If I recall correctly, I bought the four components at two now-defunct stores, Lechmere and Tweeter. Tweeter was an audiophile store and they recommended a receiver and speaker set, while at Lechmere I bought a CD player, and the Aiwa tape deck. I shlepped this set back and forth between home in Massachusetts and college in New Orleans every year, first by shipping everything (along with my Macintosh SE) – amazingly nothing ever got damaged – and in 1990 by driving them in my new (to me, it was a 1987 Honda Civic) car. The Aiwa tape deck was great for copying tapes that for some reason I didn’t have on CD, and its recording quality was quite good (or maybe my hearing is just bad, hard to say). The going rate for a component stereo at the time was around $300 per piece, so I probably spent $1,200 on the whole system. Seems kind of ridiculous today, when you can buy a powerful laptop computer for less.

Over the next ten years I bought hundreds of CDs – and custom-built cases to hold them. My car also had a tape deck, and I regularly put together mix tapes to listen to in the car, while I usually listened to whole albums at home. At some point I replaced the CD player with a 5-disc changer. I remember there were also 6-to-12 disc “magazine” models, which were supposedly less reliable. In hindsight I bet that was technically true, but probably not enough to matter.

(My vinyl records from high school didn’t make the transition to the new media era, but there wasn’t much there I missed. I’ve always thought vinyl was a cumbersome and mediocre media format anyway. CDs are a thousand times better.)

At some point I bought a Discman, and an adaptor to be able to use it through the tape player in my car, but portable CD players were pretty clunky and skipped easily (this got better over time, but was never great), so I didn’t use it a lot.

Of course, all this changed again between 2001 and 2003 with the advent of iTunes, iPods, and eventually iPhones. I ripped all my CDs into iTunes – several times as the encoding tech got better, actually. I kept the CD player for a long time, but it didn’t get much use after that. I did buy a new receiver and speakers since the old ones were nearing the end of their lives. Once I bought some Airport base stations for wi-fi in my house, I connected one of them to the receiver and then if I wanted to listen to my music library I would play it from my laptop to the receiver. I also played our television’s sound through the receiver.

In 2009 I bought a new LCD television with much better sound, and then using the receiver for the TV sound was just a pain in the ass. We still used it for the radio, until 2017 or so when Debbi got a Google Home and we started using that instead since it was so convenient. A few years later we bought a HomePod, and the Google Home took an accidental spill onto the floor and never recovered. The HomePod’s radio streaming capabilities were a bit iffy at first but they’ve gotten a lot better.

A few years ago I went through my CDs – which had been sitting in boxes since we moved to our current house in 2011 – and sold over two thirds of them to Rasputin Music, getting quite a bit more cash for them than I’d expected. I kept some by my favorite bands, and have bought a few more since – maybe three or four per year, many of them the spiffy remastered editions of Jethro Tull‘s albums. But usually I just rip them and put them in a bookcase. At time point if I do another purge I assume I’ll just throw them out unless it turns out some of them have significant resale value on eBay. I got rid of one of the custom-built cases, and the other is sitting in the garage holding random crap.

Anyway, I kept the Aiwa tape deck for years, planning to eventually digitize a number of old audiotapes I have, most of them bootleg concert recordings that I bought at the Cape Cod flea market in the late 1980s. In particular, a few Jethro Tull (that name again!) concerts which are quite good. But I never got around to it. I did loan the unit to a friend who wanted to digitize some cassettes that he owned, though. Otherwise it’s mostly sat in a closet, literally gathering dust from the pan of cat litter in the same closet.

Finally I decided that I was just never going to use that unit to perform the digitizing – who knows if it even works anymore? Instead I bought a handheld unit from Amazon which I’ll use sometime (if I can remember where I stored the cassettes), and dropped the Aiwa unit off at the e-waste center.

There’s always some old junk lying around to get rid of. We hang on to things because we think it might still be useful, or because we have fond memories of using it, or because we can’t be bothered to get rid of it. Or all three. But for most things, sooner or later its time comes.

Memory Lane: Hurricanes

Last week Hurricane Ida slammed the Louisiana gulf coast, New Orleans, several other southern states, and then the eastern seaboard, damaging infrastructure, flooding New York City, and killing dozens. While infrastructural improvements prevented the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked on New Orleans in 2005, I wonder how many more such hurricanes the city can absorb before humans are forced to abandon it.

I don’t have more significant thoughts about it than that, other than those which any climate change forecast could tell you. But I have experienced – or almost experienced – a few hurricanes myself, and thought I’d write about my memories of them.

The first Hurricane I remember was when I was growing up in Newton, MA, because I had to take our Welsh Corgi dog Punkin out for a walk in it. Since she lived from 1976-1988, that likely means it wasn’t Hurricane Belle, but rather Hurricane Gloria in 1985. But I don’t have a strong memory of it other than walking the dog, who I took maybe 3 blocks away to a mailbox (which hasn’t existed in that spot for decades now) and back home again. It was windy, and rainy, and kind of unpleasant to be in, and I mainly waited for Punkin to do her business so we could go back. I don’t even remember if we lost power, and the Wikipedia entry makes it sound like it was just a really strong storm by the time it reached Massachusetts, but not really anything special.

My next hurricane was an even bigger nothing, and I’m not even sure which one it was. My memory is that I was a freshman in college in New Orleans, and that we battoned down the hatches – including many buildings on Tulane University campus boarding up windows – expecting a hurricane to hit overnight. When we woke up the next morning we learned that it had turned at the last minute and hit Texas (Galveston, maybe?) instead. However, this would have been in the fall of 1987 – September or later – and no hurricanes from that season match my memory. The closest one I can find from my 4 years in New Orleans is Jerry in 1989. So it’s likely my memory is faulty.

(I also recall New Orleans getting socked with enough rain in the summer of 1991 to cause St. Charles St. to become a river running from uptown to downtown, and a heck of a lot of flooded-out cars around the city, but that doesn’t match up with any hurricanes, either. Fortunately my apartment had a well-elevated-and-drained driveway so my car was fine. It seems 1991 was the rainiest season in New Orleans on record, and the storm I remember was probably the June 10 one.)

Hurricane number three was a different beast, that being Hurricane Bob in August 1991. Every summer my family would vacation on Cape Cod, with my (divorced) parents each coming down for a week, and my sister and I staying for two weeks. This was the summer between college and graduate school for me, and my plan was to drive up from the Cape on Wednesday and spend the night with my father before driving to Madison, Wisconsin on Thursday. Bob, however, made landfall on Monday, August 19. Overall we were pretty lucky, since our vacation cottage wasn’t damaged, although it did lose power. At one point I walked down to Skaket Beach, a bay side beach which more-or-less faces Boston, and saw the dark clouds of the storm passing in the distance, with a lighter patch which I assume was the eye trailing it. This was during a period where the rain and wind had died down where we were, so I don’t know if the storm was huge and the eye was also huge, or if it was just coincidence.

Anyway, the next morning we walked out to the main road and saw downed trees lying across it as far as the eye could see, so it looked pretty grim for my ability to leave the next day. I don’t remember what we ate that day, but without power it was probably just sandwiches and chips or something.

To my surprise, the next morning all the trees had been chopped up and cleared off the road, so I was able to get out and drive all the way up to Boston. I don’t remember encountering any difficulties at all, and my dad had power and we probably even went out to dinner. And the morning after that I drove off to Madison as planned.

I remember calling my mom sometime later – probably the next Sunday after they’d driven home – and she said the power didn’t get restored until Friday, so I guess it wasn’t much of a vacation for her and my sister. Wikipedia says the Cape got the worst of the wind, but not a lot of rain, so I guess we got off easier than we could have.

And I think that’s it. I haven’t been back to New Orleans since I finished college, and our two trips to Florida (March 2007 and November 2015) have been hurricane-free, and none of my trips to Boston since then have involved hurricanes or their remnants either. As much as I enjoy rain and some wind – and I got both via some pretty big storms in the midwest when I lived there, along with some impressive lightning – I’m fine with having missed the big storms.

Twenty Years

Today is my 20-year anniversary of working at Apple. Where does the time go?

I went back and read the entry I wrote about moving to California and starting work at Apple, and it’s, uh, a little embarrassing. I guess I was… enthusiastic? But also young. Not that 30 – which I had just turned at the time – is all that young, but myself at 30 reads as young to me, 20 years later. Ranting about stupid tech problems, a silly dig at Microsoft (which was still on top of the world at the time, rankling many an Apple fan), a strange surface sense of self-awareness that nonetheless makes me think, “This guy, he has no idea.”

But it basically turned out okay for that guy.

I wrote a short entry on my 10-year anniversary of moving to California, which mostly reflected on the craziness of the move out here. I guess I wasn’t feeling too reflective at the time.

We had a department meeting last week where they had short segments on myself and two others hitting big milestone anniversaries. I found a couple of old photos from my first couple of years that they used, and our director said a lot of kind things. He also devoted a chunk of it to my puns, which I’m sure would amuse my sixth grade teacher. There are a lot of people in our department that I don’t know well but now they know me a little.

Apple is in many ways essentially the same company I joined, only much, much bigger. As John Gruber once said, “[Steve] Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.” I think that’s been key in maintaining the continuity and the level of excellence and – frankly – keeping the company a place I want to work, across two CEOs and many huge changes. Apple had, what, less than 10,000 employees when I started? How big is it now?

Of the projects I’ve worked on in the last two decades, I think the one I’m most proud of is the iOS SDK, which shipped in Xcode 3.1 near the end of my first decade. It was a large and interesting project in which I think we got many things right and that work has served us well in doing similar projects in the decade since. I’m hopeful that the groundwork we’ve laid in Xcode’s new build system in the last few years will lead to it eclipsing that in my memory, given time.

Personally, the last ten years have had their ups and downs: Debbi and I bought a house together. We had three cats pass away, but got two more. We bought a vacation home. My mother moved to assisted living and passed away. We got married! We went to Walt Disney World and visited Debbi’s family and friends in the area. Friends and family have come to visit. It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster, which maybe is normal for middle age. I’d say it’s been more good than bad, but maybe that’s because these have been good times for the last three or so years: There were some dark stretches earlier in the decade.

This year so far has been a cool and rainy one in NorCal, which is one of my enduring memories of my first month or so in California. Spring in February is normal to me now, whereas it felt like bonus exotic vacation time when I first got here.

I “celebrated” by doing a Magic draft in the evening at Game Kastle, where I assembled a mediocre Azorius deck with lots of removal (four Lawmage’s Binding! Three Slimebind!) and not enough good creatures. I dispatched a good Simic midrange deck, and then run over by a hyper-aggressive Rakdos deck and a solidly aggressive Orzhov deck, for a 1-2 finish. Not the best, though looking back I think I was in approximately the right place, the cards just weren’t there.

I also tweeted about my Appleversary and acquired about three dozen new followers on Twitter. No doubt they’ll all be disappointed when I rarely tweet about Apple or tech. 🙂

20 years is a long time to stick with anything, but honestly you can never run out of interesting things to work on at Apple. I’ve been working on approximately the same project for most of that time, and there’s always something new to learn or develop. I doubt there are many companies where that’s true, and I consider myself lucky to be there.

Twenty Years!

How appropriate given my relative quiet here that I missed my 20th anniversary of starting my web journal (which was yesterday). Since I still haven’t gotten around to importing my old entries into WordPress on this site, you can still read it from the beginning in all its hand-rolled 1997 glory starting here. (shudder)

Or you can read my entry on “Ten Years!” Or my long winded reminiscences on the early days of my blog.

The big difference between 10 years ago and today is the advent of social media platforms. Twitter was only a year and a half old a decade ago, and Facebook was a little older, but neither one had anywhere near the penetration they have today. I didn’t join Facebook until 2009, and Twitter maybe slightly later, so in 2007 I was still doing almost all of my online writing here.

Today, it’s much easier to make pithy comments (and a few pissy ones) on those two sites where the opportunity for dialogue and interaction is much greater. (Twitter is a pretty lousy platform for saying anything with any nuance, to be sure, but it has its uses.) Heck, I post links to my entries here on those sites since that’s where most people follow me.

I keep wanting to spend a little more time writing here – an entry a week – but it’s hard. Always so many other things I want to do, around the things that I need to do. It’s a different tension than in the old days; back then if I was busy doing stuff I didn’t have time to write, and if I had time to write I hadn’t been doing stuff to write about. Now I do stuff, take pictures of it, and post it on Facebook for my personal friends.

Anyway, cheers to 20 years of blogging. Or web journalling. 20 years ago I was still living in Madison and was over a year away from moving to California. 20 years from now I’ll be… geez, who knows? But hopefully still writing at least the occasional piece in whatever blog I have when August 2037 rolls around.

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.