My Computer Life, BC and AC by
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My life can can be divided as  BC (before computers) and AC (after computers).  While my life and work became easier and more productive with personal computers, there are things I miss.  I will list a few of these, both plus and minus, that I have seen.

My history with computers, both plus and minus in my life and work

My introduction to computers was an IBM 1620 at Cal Poly, the only one on campus.   It had 16K of memory (even the old flip phones have more), and the input and output was done with punch cards.  These cards were run in the computer each night.  My first program was simple, with an expected output of a few answers.  Unfortunately, I made a programming error.  Since I was there when it ran that night in the computer lab, I could watch the output of punch cards.  Too bad there were dozen of cards coming out the machine, and as the computer manager said to me “did you expect this much output?”.  After my “no” answer, he terminated the program.  Off to the punch card room to add more cards to my program.  Finally, it ran correctly.

In the early 70s, the hand held calculator became affordable.  It was great!  No more addition, subtraction, etc. errors.  In fact, the thick books of Standard Mathematical Tables were almost obsolete.  To determine the sin, cosine, logarithm of a number, just punch it into the calculator.  The answer was there before you could find a set of math tables.  Later calculators could be programmed to determine special problems, such as interest on a car loan or work calculations to determine the necessary pH needed to run a chemical analysis.  I loved it!

Finally, the personal PC came.  It stored data, names, addresses, and solutions to problems.  In the chemistry lab where I worked, one example shows its power.  An analysis done by an instrument that gave an output as a squiggly curve on a chart.  The more of the chemical in the solution, the more area of the curve.  Generally, one measures the area a a triangle (1/2 base x height).  However, this curve could not be measured that way since it was so odd shaped.  Therefore, we xeroxed the curve from the chart paper and cut out the curve.  The cut-out curve was then weighted on very accurate analytical balances.  The heavier the cut-out curve was, the more of the chemical was present.  It took 20 to 30 minutes to do this entire process. Computers shorten the time to less than a minute.

With the internet, more great things happen.  No longer did I have to run to the dictionary to look up a word.  If I wanted to know when a song was released, just look it up on Wikipedia.  In fact, my old World Book Encyclopedias went to the trash.

Finally, computers are everywhere now.  My new car has a built-in GPS system.  It’s computer remembers my seat and mirror positions so when I get in it, and after it scans my face, it moves the mirrors and seat to my position.

There are things I miss.  Yesterday, I found a letter my mother wrote me 50 years ago.  It was fun to read it.  I doubt I would have it if it was on e-mail.  The telephone has lost its utility.  Most calls are junk calls, and when I call a vendor, I generally go to there computerized answering system hell made possible by computers.  I have waited up to 50 minutes to get a real human who can help me with my problem.  Sometimes, there is not even a phone number.  A month ago, I had some problems with Federal Express.  No phone number and their web site did not help.  I finally got help after I wrote the Channel 7 News’ consumer reporter.  It’s like the phone has been weaponized against me.

Computers have added a new dimension for criminals to harm you.  I still pay most of my bills by check and using the US Postal System.  While it is not fool proof, stealing mail to cash a check is a federal crime.  Most computer crime comes from people overseas, and they are hard to punish.  Spending 55 cents is a small price to pay for added security in my opinion.

Overall, the computer revolution has been a blessing.  Unfortunately, like most things, a few people and organizations have exploited it and not all things have worked out well.

Profile photo of Joe Lowry Joe Lowry
I was a child that moved so often, (8 elementary/middle schools) and finally went to to high school in Arroyo Grande California. I ended up at San Jose State University graduating in Chemistry, minor in Biology. Got married, and had two sons. Unfortunately, my wife passed 35 years later. I worked initially in the pharmaceutical industry. After being down-sized, I ended up in the aerospace field, working on satellites. I still live in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Tags: Computer chemical analysis phone tree hell
Characterizations: been there, funny, well written

Comments

  1. Joe, this prompt was tailor-made for you!

    Thanx for the chronology of your life with computers with all their pros and cons , and I’m glad that despite all, you see the computer as a blessing – it certainly is here to stay!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    I enjoyed reading your stories about early computing and how computers have improved many things — calculators, GPS, internet searches. I share your frustration over some of the evils of our computer-dominated life, especially computerized answering systems used by most of my doctors… do frustrating.

    • Joe Lowry says:

      Yes, medical help on call waiting is a disaster. One recent event in my area is a surgeon did not answer his cell phone because he thought it was a junk call. It was a call from a different hospital needing his advice and skills. It did turn out okay though.

  3. Marian says:

    I can relate to all of this, Joe, and I particularly like your phrasing of the phone being weaponized. How true. Sometimes the best way to get tech support on the phone is to pretend to buy something (interesting how there often is a sales number) and harass the poor salesperson until they give up a number or transfer you. And weighing a cut-out curve? Wow! And I thought my recent task in writing about least squares algorithms was challenging.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Joe, though a theater major in college, my first job was to actually punch your data onto those punch cards and take the program to a processing center to run overnight. I got so good at it, that I could tell if programs were missing punctuation at the end of phrases and the likes. But I hated doing it. It was BORING! I worked my way into software sales; much more interesting.

    You make valid points about ways in which computers have improved our lives, and also made them scarier. I HATE that we almost never speak to humans any longer when we need help from vendors. And we are all easy prey for criminals. And Russians looking to meddle in our affairs.

  5. Mister Ed says:

    I remember punch cards, too, and was so excited when my school moved away from them to uploading the program to a PDP -10.

    Great story, Joe. I particularly liked your explanation of cutting out the area under the curve and weighing it. It reminds me of a perhaps not true story of Thomas Edison chastising an employee (or maybe his boss, I don’t remember) who wanted to use formulas to determine the volume of a light bulb. Edison — so the story goes — simply filled it with water and poured it into a measuring cup.

    Remember slide rules? Somewhere I still have mine.

    • Joe Lowry says:

      Yes Ed, I still have my slide rule.

      The last hold out for punch cards at the aerospace company I worked at was the finance department. Every week, we turned on our project time on a punch card. Finally, in 2000 (?), it was changed to each employee entering their project time on one’s PC. The results was fewer mistakes.

  6. wllmejia says:

    Good story Joe. I can totally relate. It made me rethink paying bills by phone. Condolences about the loss of the World Books I guess. I’m thinking they might be collectors items.

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