May 9, 2014

STONE KNIVES AND BEARSKINS: Last night, I got back to California after my behind the scenes work on the Duranty Awards in New York, after a delayed flight from JFK to San Francisco that began with an hour and a half on the tarmac, proceeded by six hours in flight, inside an aging Boeing 767 with one bathroom out of service, no Wi-Fi, and plenty of turbulence. (The stewardess  told us that all planes on this route will have Wi-Fi starting in June; at which point, I assume our plane will be sold by American Airlines to the Grace L. Ferguson Storm Door & Airline Company.) After finally getting home, in order to achieve maximum slumber, I watched last Sunday’s Mad Men episode before calling it a night. Two observations:

There’s something almost Warhol-esque in setting a show built around a dynamic, visually-themed industry in America’s most vibrant city, in what was arguably America’s most convulsive decade of the 2oth century and making it so grindingly boring.

However, I did enjoy the plot point of the latest episode, in which Sterling-Cooper’s management is pulling out their writers room and turning it into a hovel for its newly acquired giant 1969-era IBM mainframe. I can’t wait to see what incredible programming they’ll be doing on that; or the punch cards and tractor-fed paper that go along with it.

It reminded me of the first computer I ever used – an Altair 8800 that a math teacher at St. Mary’s Hall installed in his classroom in 1976, after assembling it from a kit. It was hooked up to a used teletypewriter, a paper tape reader, and eventually — to really immanentize the eschaton –a black and white TV and cassette player. We mostly played Wumpus, Hammurabi, Lunar Lander and Star Trek on it, but it definitely did feel like future had arrived.

What was the first computer you started on? What programs did you run on it? Let me know in the comments.

Oh, and speaking of great moments in pioneer computing…

And yes, it’s real – if not exactly spectacular.