Join 3,572 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


When We Were Young
August 12, 2011 8:03 AM   Subscribe

An oldie but a goodie: David Bennabaum on learning how to program and be a sys admin at his high school in his youth.
posted by reenum (18 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
A few months ago he removed C++ from his home computer to make room for Windows 98.

what is this where do i even
posted by DU at 8:19 AM on August 12, 2011 [8 favorites]


Those were the days...

While I was in high school my dad was working at a community college, and he had a terminal that could dial in to the college computer system (actually, it had one of those modems that you stuck the phone handset into...). I knew the password and my friends and I would log in and turn off lights and air conditioners in various buildings. It seemed like so much power at the time, and now I can control my home thermostat from my phone...

My one other early "hacking" adventure was in a summer typing class in 1985 or so... we were using Apple 2's and the program they used to test us was usually locked in some way, meaning you couldn't see or edit the code. (Sorry if I'm not explaining that correctly, it's been a long time...) On the day of the final test, however, I remember the teacher going around the room loading the program onto each computer, and for some reason I tried to look at the code, and I was able to.

Programs were so small in those days that it was simple to find the section that displayed your typing speed result and change it from a variable to a set value, in my case 42 wpm, I think. (I sucked at typing since we spent most of the time playing Scramble while the teacher ignored us) The funny thing was that I didn't think to change the error rate variable, so I still didn't pass the test.
posted by Huck500 at 8:21 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


So I don't feel so stupid now. I looked at the code snippet at the end of the article, and thought the same thing, "that looks OK..." Then the same "DUH" reaction at the end. I've done that more than once in my time as a programmer. Sometimes it's intentional because that's how it's supposed to work (like a bucketfill function), but when it's unintentional it can be maddening.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:22 AM on August 12, 2011


It's David Bennahum. (I know him. He's an ex-classmate of mine)

I don't know when this article was written but his "forthcoming" book came out in 1998.
posted by vacapinta at 8:28 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


what is this where do i even

It's possible he had a computer that just ran a dos-based development system and nothing else.
posted by Huck500 at 8:33 AM on August 12, 2011


I had a Vic-20 and I was BORN in '82. My dad tried to convince me it could do everything the 1993 computers could do. 'What's a CD One?' he said, when I explained that computers had moved on since my older brother had one. (He didn't believe Nicam existed either. 'It's a marketing scheme.)

I still wonder if Jet Set Willy was as rude as it sounded.
posted by mippy at 8:39 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can program in Basic, though. It's about as useful as knowing Esperanto to the non-specialist these days. Both are good if you study languages, but it's not going to help you in your day to day life.
posted by mippy at 8:42 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's great; I also remember the thrill of understanding recursion. It's definitely one of my top "ah-ha" moments.

That said, my time spent in morning Computer Club was less about programming (although there was a little bit) and more about trying to pirate as many floppy disks as you could in an hour. Having the 128K machine or the dual-drive machine made all the difference in the world.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:55 AM on August 12, 2011


In the early 1980s, when high school computer education was in its infancy, student-crafted software was essential to the curriculum.

I think it still is. At least, I think reaching the full potential of secondary computer science /software development education *and* supporting IT in education probably relies less on outside vendors and more on combining student-crafted software, open source projects, and some enthusiastic and professional staff members.
posted by weston at 9:08 AM on August 12, 2011


A few months ago he removed C++ from his home computer to make room for Windows 98. "It hadn't occurred to me at the time, but this was my last compiler," he told me the other day, referring to C++. "I still can't quite get over the fact that I'm sitting here with a computer that has no programming capability whatsoever, unless you count things like Word macros, which I don't."
I'm guessing he probably had a JavaScript interpreter as well. It's interesting to hear people complain about how computers 'can't be programmed out of the box' anymore. First of all, it's not true -- JS in a browser is just as powerful as those old basic environments (except without file access). And secondly, you're on the internet -- you can download any of thousands of free programming environments, mostly available for free.
I can program in Basic, though. It's about as useful as knowing Esperanto to the non-specialist these days. Both are good if you study languages, but it's not going to help you in your day to day life.
VB.net is still really popular.
posted by delmoi at 10:03 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


VB.net is still really popular.

It is nothing like the Basic we learned as kids. It is much closer to C# than basic, or even VB6.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:06 AM on August 12, 2011


A few months ago he removed C++ from his home computer to make room for Windows 98.

The last C++ environment (Compiler, DOS based IDE and debugger) I bought was Borland Turbo C++, it came on 50+ floppy disks. But it is still minuscule compared to today's hard drive sizes.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:12 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


In 1985, you could walk into any B. Dalton and buy the reference manual for the Commodore 64, which was at the time the most popular personal computer in the world. Inside you would find documentation for every single hardware register in the video, sound, and memory control chips, every single memory location reserved for ROM use, and every single ROM convenience routine. With the information in that book you could, if you were clever enough, write software equivalent in depth and complexity to what any company shop with access to better resources might produce, and a lot of really good software came out of personal home effort.

The same information was available for the Amiga, but since then comparable information for all more modern computers has only been made in expensive, hard to find, and incomplete fashion, and it's really expected that you can't write commercially viable software tools at all without investing in an expensive SDK, which was probably developed by someone who spent even more money on all the documentation and signing NDA's about it.
posted by localroger at 10:23 AM on August 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


In fairness, having owned the C64 reference manual whist still in grade school, it was useless. If you already understood computer architecture, it was a good reference. But even now with a degree in computer engineering and 20 professional years fo software development experience the damn thing is still pretty opaque.
posted by GuyZero at 10:46 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sure, Mainstream software developement is different now. On the 64, and the Amiga, you wrote "to the metal". Today you will use and SDK but the SDK I use , .NET, is free and is pretty well documented.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:48 AM on August 12, 2011


That takes me back. Around about 1993-ish, I wrote a report-printing program for my office's accounting department because the spreadsheet programs they used at the time couldn't fit everything onto one page. I used Turbo Pascal 6.0 to output HP LaserJet control codes directly to the printer port to get some insanely-compressed landscape print mode. These days you're lucky if your printer comes with a big picture-filled card telling you how to install it. =P

One of my prouder programming moments came the next day when the accountants asked if printing could be sped up. I ran a profiler on my program and found out it was spending most of its time in the routine that figured out where the cursor was so it could put "Printing X of Y bytes..." on the screen. I replaced that with a simpler output and made it three times faster. Go me.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 10:51 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


This story sounds so much like my own. I was in high school 20 years later, and even though our school had no computer science program whatsoever, there was a close-knit family of geeky students working on awesome projects lead by an awesome teacher in his spare time. (When I say awesome, I mean it -- we made a voice controlled music player, a custom Wiki server, our own MUD, our own web-based email and IM, etc. all around 2000!)

Unfortunately the whole thing unwound by the end of sophomore year -- the teacher lost his job after discovering the principal embezzling money, the school district sent in IT people who insisted locked-down Windows machines only, one student was arrested for running a computer theft ring, another was beaten to within an inch of his life and never returned to school. I pretty much checked out of high school for two years.

Then I got to college and discovered that many of the other CS students had a semester or two of formal programming education at their suburban or private high schools. It seemed like a betrayal.

Someday I'll write an essay. It'll end up reading a lot like Bennabaum's though.
posted by miyabo at 11:35 AM on August 12, 2011


In 1985, you could walk into any B. Dalton and buy the reference manual for the Commodore 64

And, if you could find a copy of Transactor on the news-stand, you could damn near make it (or the floppy drive) sit up and sing an aria from Rigoletto. That was the CBM equal of Mr. Moran. Me and a new T ... so long weekend.

I can still remember going into B. Dalton to look at the manual for the new Mac. What are all these names? Where's the fun part - calls by address? hardware settings? synth chip? No fun part - at least until Future Basic came along (and even then you had to disass OP's code to find the secrets).

Irreplaceable fun.
posted by Twang at 11:59 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


« Older "IBM is proud to announce a product you may have a...   |   The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy.... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments