24 September 2011

Bread Upon the Waters

Ecclesiastes 11 tells us:
Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.

In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.
I suppose my interest in computing really goes back to my last year in high school.  Our physics teacher, James Anthony Rossas - JAR - had acquired a little device with lights and switches, wired up so that you could mimic some of the operations of propositional logic by setting the switches.  You could experiment with AND, OR and NOT - which are, I suppose, all you need for computing.  You could combine propositions in this way and see the little lights come on.  I was, frankly, fascinated by the concept.

My first experience with an actual computer was with a computer at UCLA - an IBM 704, it may have been - that was given to the students to play with as the University had acquired a newer one - I think an IBM 7094.  In 1960 or 1961, my senior friend, Lowell Wood, had talked me through writing some primitive routine for it, just to see how it worked.

I must, nevertheless, have had more experience in the years between 1961 and 1964, though I do not remember where or how, because in 1964, when I returned to the University of California at Berkeley to study linguistics, I began part-time paid work in a field that is now my full-time occupation: computing.

In late 1964, when I had just started there, I applied for a job in a machine language translation project.  It is interesting to speculate what would have happened had that panned out, but it did not - because, in fact, the whole MLT project was about to be abandoned by the University.  Mechanised translation was beginning to be seen as much more difficult than was once imagined (in my opinion true translation can never be mechanised), so there soon was no project at all.

But I was hired as student help to write statistical programmes - pretty simple ones by today's standards - for a number of linguistic projects that were going on at the time.  The whole business was quite different from what we think of as computing today.

Of course the programmes were all entered into the machine on punched cards.  In 1964, I didn't even punch the cards myself.  I wrote my programmes on coding sheets - programming in Assembly language - none of your high-level languages, please, not even FORTRAN! - which were then given to keypunch operators who punched them in.  The data were all on 7-track tape - 9-track came later.  I don't know who entered the data - not me.

Output was on fanfold paper - and much of the time my output consisted in memory dumps which I would mark up in order to discover the bugs in my code.

The technical bits above - Assembly language, 7-track tape, etc - are there not (simply :-)) to make the whole thing sound technical and impressive, but because several readers of this - at least Eddie and Johnny - will find it somewhat interesting.  But I describe the whole experience because I did begin serious computing work at this time, continued it quite a lot more at the University of Hawai'i when I did my Master's degree - and in part this was responsible for our move to New Zealand.  In Yap the computing began gradually to take over - so that in 1984 my way of making a living ceased to have anything at all to do with linguistics and became computing full-time.

The small things that we do in life may, like Ecclesiastes' bread and seed, have long-term larger consequences that we cannot anticipate at the time.

My parents' move to Hawai'i in 1963 was to have similarly large consequences for me - and for others.

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