The Beginnings of a Computer Career 45 Years Ago

I attended college and had a career in the computer industry during a fascinating time. When I started college the computer industry was young. I don't think Iowa State had more than a hand full of computers and undergraduates only saw the computer from behind glass. During the 40 plus years since I started college computers have become ubiquitous

I've decided to start writing a series of blog posts about some of my experiences. I hope to write about things that might be interesting to my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.  I would have liked my grandmothers to write for their descendants. They could have written about driving a Model T, teaching in a one room school house, growing up on a homestead in North Dakota or living in the Canadian Rockies in the 1930s.

I remember being intrigued by computers during my last couple of years in High School. I built an electronic decimal to binary converter for a science fair, I think during my senior year. It was a project from a book. I knew nothing about soldering and not much about electricity. I built it but it didn't work. As I recall my Dad took it to one of his friends who got the project working for me. It had a few resisters, some wires, some lights and some push buttons. You pushed a button next to one of the numbers 1-9 and the right combination of four lights would come on to represent the binary equivalent of the number.

This is a picture of me in January 1969. I was 17. January is the beginning of the school year in Australia.

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I attended school in Australia from 1964 until 1969. I went to high school at Clayfield College a Presbyterian and Methodist Girls school in Brisbane. The space flights leading to the first landing on the  moon were during this period. I was fascinated by space exploration. The practical use of computers and science in the space program fueled my interest in computers. Not long before we left Australia my Mom brought a television to school so we could watch the first moon landing on  20 July 1969.

From Australia we moved to St Charles Illinois and I started my senior year of High School year there in September 1969. It was hard being a new kid and having no friends. I was really glad to leave St Charles and move to London, England. I attended an American military dependents high school. I'm not sure but I think the science fair and the binary converter project may have been while I was a student at London Central High School. 

I got contact lenses soon after we moved ot London. This is my HIgh School graduation picture.

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I knew I was going to go to college in the U.S. but I had no idea where to go. I took the SAT test in Brisbane before we left Australia. There was one other guy taking the test at the same time. I remember I had to have a social security number to sign up for the test so that is when I applied for and received my social security number. 

While we were living in Illinois one weekend my Dad drove me out to Ames, Iowa to visit Iowa State where he and my mother had gone to college. It is a beautiful campus. We met with the admissions director because I had a pretty strange high school transcript. He said I was admitted. As part of the admissions process I had to declare a major. I remember pouring over the Iowa State catalog which was a thick paperback book listing all the majors and classes. Since I enjoyed math I thought "What the heck, Computer science looks interesting." and I checked that box on the application. I figured I could always change it later.

At Iowa State in the Fall of 1970 my first computer science class was Fortran. We wrote programs on key punch pads so the key punch operators could punch the cards for us. Each line on the programming pad became a card to read into the computer.  If you procrastinated on your programming assignments you would have to use one of the key punch machines in the  basement of the computer science building to punch the cars for your assignment yourself.

This picture of one the keypunch machines in the basement of the computer science building is from my college yearbook.

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Once we had our program on cards we would hand in our deck of cards to the clerks behind the desk in the basement where the computer was and the program would be run through the computer in the room behind the glass. Just finding all your syntax errors could take several cycles of handing in cards and coming back a few hours later to get the results of your run.

Although there were very few woman  in my classes my first computer science teacher for the Fortran class was a woman. I think June Smith was here name. We learned early on that if a line of code was longer than the 80 characters that would fit on one card we could create a continuation card by putting an x in the first column of the next card.  I remember her telling us about the student who thought you made continuation card by stapling the two cards together. You can imagine the serious damage that did to the card reader machine!

The first electronic pocket calculator the HP-35 was introduced by Hewlett Packard in 1972. It cost $395. I don't think I ever owned a calculator while I was in college. We did math for classes like Physics by hand or we used a slide rule. This picture of the HP-35 is from the book Core Memory – A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers.

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 Student protests against the war in Viet Nam and the killing of students at Kent Sate by the national guard occurred during my Freshman year at Iowa State. I was politically very conservative and Iowa State was a fairly conservative school. Although I had misgivings about the war I supported the U.S. policy in Viet Nam so I took no part in the protests at Iowa State.

If you have memories of this era please add them in the comments.

Mango Languages

The Washoe County Library System offers a language learning tool called Mango Languages. It is an interactive languages learning system. I like it a lot, am having fun using it and I find I am retaining what I learn. The library subscribes to the program and because I have a library card I get to use it on my computer at home free. I am studying Spanish but Mango offers basic and complete courses in a long list of languages.

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As I work through the course each phrase is broken down into pieces and I am drilled on the words in the phrase and then phrase as a whole. I like that I am not only listening to the language but I am seeing the words. I am a very visual learner when it comes to languages. I can also choose how much repetition I want. In my current lesson I can go through 92 slides in the entire lesson or just do 49 vocabulary slides or 7 phrasebook slides.

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If your library offers Mango languages you will find it on your library web site. If you don't live in Washoe County, Nevada then on the Mango Languages home page you can put in your zip code and find a library near you that offers the service

Ronni Bennett – Creator of the Time Goes By Blog – Episode 5

Ronni Bennett creator of the Time Goes By Blog is my guest  for episode 5 of the Marion Vermazen Podcast.

Ronni is the author of one of my favorite blogs Time Goes By – What it's really like to get older. She is retired from a very successful career in journalism and television production. Her blog has a vibrant community of followers and is a constant source of information and insight.

If you would like to listen to the interview you can click on the play button that will show up when you move your mouse over the gray bar below.

Marion Vermazen Podcast – episode 5 – Ronni Bennett

Here are links to two of the subjects we discussed.

 Elders for Healthcare Reform

 Ronni's Photo biography

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You can also subscribe to my podcast by clicking on the
link at
the top of the column to the right.

To subscribe in iTunes,
from the iTunes Advanced menu select Subscribe to Podcast and copy the
feed URL.

http://marionvermazen.blogs.com/mv-podcast/rss.xml  "

The fun thing about this podcast has been that when I realized I wanted to create a podcast of my  conversations with interesting people I was able to just jump in and do it. I am really enjoying myself and It continues to be a learning experience. This was my first podcast done with both of us using Skype and unfortunately the quality is not as good as I would like it to be. If anyone has expertise in Skype, Podcasting, sound recording, and mixers I would love to pick his or her brain. Drop a comment on this blog or send me an email.

Improving my Podcast Quality – Podcasters Emporium – Buying a mixer.

As you may know I have recently started a Podcast. I published my first show a month ago and am working on show number two. I am a total neophyte when it comes to podcasting. I am good with technology. It was my career for 30 years. But I have zero experience with sound or recording.

I have been doing a lot of research on podcasting. I believe in learning by doing so I just dove in and published my first show. I'm glad I did it. It was a lot of fun and I think the content turned out to be pretty good. But the sound quality was horrible. So I have been focusing on learning more about what is needed to produce a more professional show.

One of the resources I found which has become invaluable and has quickly become my favorite Podcast is The Podcasters Emporium, a show by two Australian guys James Williams and Dave Gray about how to improve your podcast. I like it because it isn't too basic but it also isn't aimed at experts. Plus I really enjoy the authenticity and personality of Dave and James. They have a great voice and a very engaging show. I think I need to start a side bar list of my favorite podcasts. The Podcasters Emporium will be on the list.

The first things I learned were all about gain, what gain is, and how I need to adjust it. This was covered in episode 11 of Podcasters Emporium. I suspect turning my gain down will make a very big improvement to my sound quality.

In studying ways to improve my podcast I also became convinced that if I am going to be doing interviews I need 2 mics. Handing the mic back and forth or holding it between the two of us just doesn't cut it. But if I use 2 mics I need a mixer. So I started shopping for  a mixer. My only complaint about Podcasters Emporium (and it is a minor one) is that it left me with the impression that I would need to spend at least $500 if I wanted a good enough mixer and mics. And I really don't want to invest a lot of money getting started.

So I posted a comment on Twitter saying  that I was looking for a good mixer but I thought I ws going to have to spend hundreds of dollars. One of my twitter and blogging friends Ryan of Ryan Jerz :: Reno Blogger responded almost immediately recommending the Behringer 802 8-Input mixer. The key things I learned from Podcasters Emporium were that I should buy a mixer with at least 2 XLR inputs and with phantom power. I didn't know what those things were but I learned that too. I went to my local Radio Shack store but the $30 mixer they had didn't have XLR input and the cheaper  Behringer mixer for sale on Amazon didn't have phantom power. So I ordered the 802 from Amazon for $59 and should be receiving it next week. Hopefully it will do the trick.

For now I am going to keep using my very cheap microphones but once I learn how to use the mixer I may be upgrading them too. If you have ideas or suggestions on other things I should know or do please let me know. Post a comment or email me.

Just Do It!

Interviews are always fascinating to me. Every time I watch a great Charlie Rose interview I say to myself Wow! I would love to have interesting conversations like that. The other day I listened to a Podcast interview that Dan Carlin of Hardcore History did with James Burke and my reaction was the same.

Several years ago my boss at the time had caricature done of each of his managers as a gift. The text of mine was "Just Do It!" which in fact is my motto. Any time I am faced with something I am not sure I want to do or something I don't know how to do  I believe the best thing to do is to just get on with it.

The beauty of the Internet and things like blogs and Podcasts is that with a blog it is very easy to be a writer, and in a similar vein it would be relatively easy to create a Podcast and become an interviewer. I am sure that 30 years ago Charlie Rose was not as good as he is today at creating interesting interviews. And good Podcasts take a lot of hare work and practice too.  So if I really want to be an interviewer I should Do It!

Of course I have lots of ideas like this and my problem/opportunity is actually focusing and doing it?!

Road Trip and how I will use Twitter

Duke and I are leaving Sunday for a three week road trip through Idaho, Yellowstone, Bismarck, North Dakota, Manitoba, Ontario, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Manchester, Iowa, Nebraska and Colorado. I'll be blogging while I'm gone but I will also be using my phone to post regular updates to Twitter.

For those who have never heard of Twitter, Twitter.com is a service that lets you post 140 character updates about what you are doing. I haven't found it all that useful because none of my friends use it.

One thing I have found nice is that I can have my Twitter updates show up on the right side of my blog.  So even when I don't have time to write a blog post I can do a quick Twitter update and then people who read my blog will know what I am up to. Plus I can update Twitter via a text message from my phone.

Another nice thing is that I can follow the Reno Gazette Journal on Twitter and be aware of what is happening in Reno while I am gone.

Anyway the bottom line is that if you are interested in where we are on our trip just watch the top right hand corner of this blog.

The Future of Computing

Digital Rules by Rich Karlgaard is almost always thought provoking. Recently he pointed to a fascinating article by George Gilder titled The Information Factories.  Gilder talks about how  we are moving towards massive centralized computing and what this means in terms of power consumption and  computer design. He estimates that "the total of electricity consumed by major search engines in 2006 approaches 5 gigawatts…..   Five gigawatts is almost enough to power the Las Vegas metropolitan area… on the hottest day of the year."   

Gilder who is known as a futurist says that "For the moment, at least, the power of massive parallelism has far outstripped the promise of alternative computing architectures" but he anticipates that just as centralized computing gave way to the PC revolution the pendulum will swing again. New technologies and the next wave of innovation "will compress today’s parallel solutions…. and transform the calculus of storage, bandwidth, and power that gives centralization its current advantage."

I think it is prescient that when he is talking about the future of computing he  quotes Andy Bechtolsheim who is one of Sun’s founders and is currently Sun’s Chief Architect and Senior Vice President of Network Systems. I predict and, in fact, hope that Sun will manage to lead the way into this new future.