Why Do I Program Computers?

Today, Mike and I reminisced about our early experiences with computers. (Keep in mind his experiences predate mine by a decade: Before I even had a computer, he was already writing code professionally!) Doing anything and everything on a computer in those days, we decided, was harder, slower, and usually resulted in a relatively poor result. Somehow, however, those hard, slow, poor results were just so much fun! In one of my stories, a Cyrix 686 overheated so badly that it smoked up the paint on the outside of the case. What did Therm and I do? We took a $5 Dollar Store fan, cranked it up on high, pointed it directly at the smoldering silicon, and kept going! As I recall, the machine didn’t lock up anymore that night. What were we doing that required us to keep plugging in the face of fire and destroyed equipment? I don’t remember exactly, but I think it involved drawing some pitiful web graphics in Paint Shop Pro 6. Nowadays, I have access to equipment that is infintismally better and I have the knowledge to push that equipment, but none of it can rival the sheer exhiliration I used to get when I learned how to do something totally new on a computer. I’m not a computer God or total guru, but I’ve done a little bit of everything on a computer to the point where nothing new I do is truly new anymore.

Sometimes, when I’m writing code, I wonder what really got me into coding in the first place. Then, a wonderous memory hits me, and I settle in and code away without reservation. Sometime around October 1996, I got my hands on the Internet for the first time. It was as if the stars were in alignment when I actually sat in front of that honking CRT to see what the World Wide Web thing was all about. I didn’t have a computer of my own, but I was taking Keyboarding/Word Processing at the Leslie County Area Technology Center. In addition to getting some hands on time with Windows 3.1 and DOS 6.22, my teacher had given me about 35 old copies of PC Magazine. (Included in this collection was the cover story that compared 486 processors to their Pentium bretheren!) I poured over them with every spare moment for about a month! You must understand that long before this exposure, I had always wanted to be a computer guy. There was one small problem, though: My dad thought personal computers were like an Atari, used for nothing more than playing games.

Anyway, given my fruitless obsession and this new found exposure, I was foaming at the mouth for anything computer related. My teacher, for whatever reason, thought it would be a good idea to show me what the Internet was. The classrooms were not wired with Ethernet, and come to find out, neither was anywhere else in the building. The only connection was in the Principal’s office via a 14.4 dial-up connection to the only ISP available, Leslie County Internet, otherwise known as LCI.* Having never heard a computer dial, I was shocked at how it sounded like a fax machine, except that it seemed to take longer before it got quiet. (Yeah, I know: That part is basically a fax machine, but I didn’t know that!)

After we dialed up, my teaching instructed me to click on this Netscape thinga-ma-bob.  Now, I don’t know for sure, but I’m quite certain it was Netscape 2 or Netscape 3. (I know it wasn’t the Gold version of either, because the colors were a monochrome set of greens and blues.) The teacher then asked me if I knew any web addresses, because the browser didn’t just take you to a Homepage. The only one that came to mind, for some reason, was www.discovery.com: I guess I had seen it on a Discovery Channel commercial or in an AOL commercial. Using my recently learned touch-typing skills, I typed it in the Address Bar and hit Enter. What followed next was life changing…

Suddenly, the page background went from a deep gray to white and some text appeared with some science headlines and a schedule of the show.  So far so good, but when a bunch of little boxes with little bitmap icons in the top left corner, I was enthralled. It looked like there was a logical structure to all this, almost like some kind of vines or tree. Everything existed as a square of some type or other. Slowly, one by one, the little boxes gave way to actual images. Now, as ignorant as I was about all this, I wonder how in the world someone could create such an awesome graphic in Paint! It didn’t occur to me that there were very cool, sophisticated programs that do this. I’m pretty sure my mouth dropped open. After everything had loaded, the teacher told me to click on anything that was underlined and it would take me to a page about that underlined thing. For the next 20 minutes, I surfed around on discovery.com, then I eventually went to WebCrawler, as it was one of the sites I remembered from the AOL commercials I had seen. I didin’t have a clue what HTML was or how to even start creating web graphics, but I knew in my heart that I wanted to know how to create these web pages. Over the next few months, I finally got a computer. About six months after that, I had created my first webpage, affectionately called Gassy’s World and hosted on Tripod. There was plenty of new, awesome stuff to learn on a weekly basis: FTP, CSS, IE 4/5 and all it’s bastardization of standards, Photoshop, ad infinitum. The rest is history…That, my friends, is why I do it to this day.

* Leslie County Interenet was run by a former KY State Police officer named David Tennill. The ISP was one server with about 20 modems and a T1 in his basement. David and his son were horrible night owls, so if the network went down, you could only get ahold of them from about 11PM to 3AM. You could call then and they answered cheerfully as if it were morning. The service went out for about 2 weeks once due to a fried power supply. When I asked if we would get a break on the bill, David laughed and said, "Nah. We need the money to fix the server." Ah, what times we had. I think they were running some sort of UNIX, because eventually, they gave each LCI subscriber 2MB of webspace. I remember fighting with WS_FTP to get my little page up! The service was sold to TDS, the only available local telco, in 1998. God bless the Tennill’s for hooking us up with our first trickle to the web.

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