My Love Affair With My Computer

I started using computers in 1974, when “personal” computers were still a few years away. In between the time I first used that school district mainframe via an acoustic modem and teletype, and the day I bought my own computer, I followed the computer industry closely. I subscribed to Byte (an influential small computer magazine of the period), and hungrily read most of what I could find on the different computers available, the CPU chips that powered them, etc.

Finally, in about 1985, I purchased an Epson QX-10 for $1400. The QX-10 was an 8 bit machine, as opposed to the IBM PC, which was a 16 bit machine. The QX-10 had a couple of major plusses going for it. First it had a great keyboard. It had the standard 105 key keyboard layout you see today. This was important to me, because I’d spent a semester in high school learning to type by touch. The IBM PC had a bad keyboard. I’m not talking about the clickiness or key travel, things I couldn’t have cared less about. No, the IBM PC keyboard layout was wrong. Go research the original 83 and 84 key layouts, and you’ll see what I mean. Keys were just in the wrong place. By contrast, the QX-10’s layout was probably identical to the keyboard I’m typing on right now.

The second plus for the QX-10 was that it came with a built-in office suite called Valdocs. It included the usual office suite suspects. Had I purchased something like the IBM PC instead, I don’t know where I would have found a comparable software package. And I had no idea how many car payments it would cost. But those office suite programs were things I needed to make full use of the computer. So the fact that the Epson QX-10 had them built in was a huge benefit.

But of course, writing letters and doing spreadsheets was not a complete use of my new computer. At the time, there were lots of what was called “shareware” programs about. These were programs distributed on 5-1/4" floppy disks for cheap. You bought the disks and tried out the software. If you liked it, you could send the author money in return for his efforts. This was how shareware worked. Shareware titles included a lot of games, programs to calculate mortgage rates, and any of a variety of other things. These were unique to the type of computer or operating system you had. For example, there might be a game written for the Apple II, but it wouldn’t run on a CP/M machine. (The QX-10 ran on a Zilog Z-80 8 bit chip and used an operating system almost identical to CP/M, the standard for most 8-bit machines.)

Shareware titles were pretty cheap, so I could have bought a lot of them and done whatever they were built to do. But I didn’t exactly know what I wanted my computer to do outside of letters and such. So I didn’t have a lot of internal guidance on what to buy.

For example, I knew early on that I wanted my computer to keep track of my checking account. That seemed like a reasonable and simple use of a computer. But there were about a hundred different check register programs out there. Which one to buy? You could probably go broke buying them, and you still might not find one you really liked. It was like that with a lot of computer tasks.

Solutions? Learn to program. That way you could build whatever you wanted to your own specifications. So that’s what I decided to do. I’d already done some minor programming in Dartmouth (mainframe) BASIC in 1974, so I had some idea of how you did it. And I wasn’t afraid of getting my hands dirty.

So how did you go about learning to program? I was lucky. There was a company called Borland which put out a book/compiler package for the Pascal language. The reference book was good enough to allow me to learn (incrementally) how to code in Pascal. And the price was relatively cheap, as I recall. Maybe $80. Turned out to be worth every penny.

After a year or two, I could code most anything I wanted in Pascal. But Pascal (I learned) was a language specifically built to teach programming. Not really considered a professional language. So what language would be a professional follow-on? A little research, and the answer came up: C. The C language was the preferred language for general programming. If you wanted to do science (I didn’t), you would use FORTRAN. If you wanted to do business (I didn’t), you would use COBOL. C was general purpose, and a professional programmer language. So I bought the seminal reference, The C Programming Language, and an inexpensive C compiler for the Z-80 CP/M combination. And I started coding things in C.

Since then, I’ve owned a variety of computers. The next was a Packard Bell 286. I bought 386s, 486s, Pentiums, and my latest, an Intel Core I 5 machine. For a time, I built my own computers. As time moved on, I did less of that, and more buying off-the-shelf machines.

I spend most of my time in front of my computer. I’ve got a small television formerly owned by my granddaughter for my display. I recently upgraded my DVD drive to a Blu-Ray.

What about laptops? I’ve owned a couple. I bought a used NEC laptop years ago, and it worked okay. But I just don’t have any real use for a laptop. When I’m elsewhere in the house, I’m not computing. When I go out and about, I’m usually doing something like dropping mail off at the post office or buying lumber at Lowes. Not exactly computer-intensive pursuits.

We finally bought a modern laptop (new) which ran Ubuntu Linux. It works okay, but it has a Celeron processor in it, so it’s a lightweight. And I recently upgraded it from 32 bit to 64 bit operation (Celeron will do that), and it runs like a dog now. Plus, I still don’t have a good use for it. Occasionally I use it to test wireless in the house or connect directly to the router to debug something. But its wireless is flaky.

Tablets? We’ve got three. Two Amazon Fire tablets and a straight Android tablet. I only bought them because neither my wife or I had ever used a tablet, and we thought it might be wise to learn about them. An the price was right. The Fires cost about $50 each. At first, I didn’t really have a use for the tablet. Then I found out how you could watch movies on it, and did that for a long time. Then the government cracked down on whoever made the application I was using, so I quit doing that. Then I found out I could watch Amazon Prime and Netflix videos on it. So I’ve done a bit of that. But for all the automatically installed apps on that tablet, that’s about all I do.

Smart phones? Yeah, my wife has one she bought because her job pretty much requires it. Me? I’ve got a Samsung dumb phone. Costs me about $100 for my wireless plan. And I mostly use it in case my wife has to call me from the grocery store, or I have to call 911. My wife’s about the only one who knows the number. I don’t call people (I like email a lot better), and I don’t like people calling me. Email’s great because I don’t have to tend to it right away. I can reply later when I have the information you’re asking for.

Do you sense a pattern here? No, I’m not a Luddite. But I use technology only to the extent it performs a worthwhile function for me. A smart phone might be nice, but spending $300 on one, and a hundred dollars a month on a data plan just isn’t my idea of a wise purchase. It might be for you, but not me. Besides, most everywhere I go, my wife is with me and we use her Android phone. (I’ve been screwed badly by Apple, so they get nothing from me.)

That’s the point. What do I need a smart phone for? I can’t think of anything. Most people use smart phones to look stuff up, monitor Facebook and such. Well, since I’m in front of my computer most of the time, I can look things up there, and a lot easier than it is on a phone (I’ve used my wife’s phone for this; give me a desktop computer any day.)

My tablet is if minimal use. I can’t play DVDs or Blu-Rays on it (I can on my computer), and I can watch the same Amazon and Netflix movies on my computer as I can on my tablet. And my computer’s got a bigger screen and better speakers.

I’ve written millions of lines of code to make my computer do what I want. Our business runs on software I wrote– payroll, A/P, A/R, work orders, hosting, etc. I recently completed work on my checkbook register program (I don’t use my bank portal to pay bills and such). I’ve got a calendar app I wrote. And a calculator. And an address book. And a password wallet. And, and, and.

I make extensive use of my computer. Otherwise, the usefulness of other forms of computerized technology just falls off. I’m not a social network guy. You could probably count all my Facebook “friends” on your fingers and toes. And I never go on Facebook anyway.

I’m not one of those guys who’s got to have the latest technology, or whose house has lights I can control from my smart phone. Technology is for use, not for display or status. Technology which is “cool” or new has no appeal for me. I buy a car and drive it for 20 years (like my last car), and I’ll use my computer until smoke starts pouring out of it.

Again, technology is for use, and should make your load (legitimately) lighter.