27 January 2013


My first day working at Interactive Applications Ltd witnessed a miracle - or at least a marvel: I managed to stay (more or less) awake all day.

Our flight had arrived at 10:30 the night before.  I think we were asleep by about 1:30AM - and awake at 6:30.  Ross drove the two of us to the office - somewhere about here.  Ian Hardcastle was my supervisor - and he was not at there.  He was visiting a customer - I think it was called "Auckland Byproducts" and was, in fact, a company that processed the leftovers from slaughtering beasts and processed them, somehow - perhaps into glue.  Ian and I later referred to it as "The Shambles."  He had, however, left a very warm welcome note on my desk (written in marking pen on a sheet of fanfold paper) - and had left, also, a copy of a manual for Microsoft BASIC there.

I had never before that seen a computer with the DOS Operating System - the precursor to modern Windows.  All the computing I had done had been in a sort of ancestor of DOS: CP/M.

I recall that first day vividly.  I think I probably read through the first three or four pages of that manual at least a dozen times - retaining, in fact, nothing.  DOS was close enough to CP/M that I was able to start up a computer (booting, of course, off 5.25" floppies.  DOS was IAL's principal growing market, although much of our installed base was still CP/M (many of which machines booted from 8" floppies).  New machines in the office, though, were DOS - and there were even one or two IBM XTs, with 10MB hard discs - and during my time there, we acquired an early IBM AT.  This latter was an amazing machine.  It had a 20MB hard disc, 512KB of RAM, and a 6MHz 80286 CPU (the XT and the floppy-only PCs had 4.77MHz 8086 CPUs and 64KB RAM - though ours were mostly beefed up to 128Kb).

Within a day or two I was beginning actually to work.

Our software was all written in BASIC - either a CP/M version or a DOS version.  Various actions required the computer to search through collections of information - and even although the collections in question were small by today's standards, the machines were slow.  Searching for an item in a list is tedious.  You have to examine each item in the list in turn.  If the item is the last in the list, you have checked each item for each search.

Our software used a method for storing searchable collections called a B-Tree.  In effect, looking for an item you can first decide if it is in the first or second half of the list; then in the first or second half of the resulting sub-list; and so forth.  This means your search time is much less (for those who care, linear searching of N items takes N lookups; B-tree searching can be done on the order of log-to-the-base-2 of N.  1024 items takes, on average, 10 lookups instead of 1024).

The trick was that the B-tree software was not part of BASIC.  It lived in a special part of memory - and BASIC had to be able to talk to it.  My principal job, for quite some time, was writing the bits of programme that connected BASIC to B-Tree.

I worked at IAL from that day - 21 May, 1984 - through to my last day - 29 November, 1985.  I had a wonderful time there.  I learned a lot more of actual practical (as opposed to theoretical) computing.  I made one friend who is a dear friend to this day - the same Ian Hardcastle.  IAL was fun.  The people were very good to me.  Every now and then I encounter one or another of them.

When we moved to Pukekohe that May, it was our and the Jacksons' intention that we should build a house for joint dwelling of the two families on Ross's property in Glenbrook.  I do not know precisely at what point it became clear that this would not do, but it may have had not a little to do with the - unsurprising! - stresses created by the two large families living together in a house meant for one.

20 January 2013

Heart searchings

Susan was in tears.  She had not, until then, genuinely faced the probability that she would likely now cease to be what she had thought of herself all her life: an American.

I was not in literal tears, but I was, nonetheless, gripped by a deep, panicky feeling of dismay: I was - surely! - abandoning what I had believed was God's calling for me, to be a linguist - indeed, to be a Yapese linguist.

When, in the summer of 1974-5, I had gone to Yap and come back with the idea of trying to get them to hire me; when, in fact, in early 1976 they did hire me; I felt that God had confirmed, by a special act of Providence, that that was the life's work He had called me to.  I was to spend my life working on the Yapese language.

Over the now seven and a half years of our life in Yap, I had gradually, in fact, ceased actively to work much on Yapese linguistics.  I was, it is true, actively working on Yapese language matters, but at a practical level: the production of school books in the Yapese language.  It was for me, as for Susan, the shock of realising precisely what this move back to New Zealand would mean, that brought me to a momentary halt.  Was this really what was going to happen?

I lied to myself.  Strictly speaking, I told myself a story which, in reality, I could easily have seen to be very unlikely.  I said to the people at the Yap Evangelical Church that I would commit myself to coming back in five years as a Bible translator (at the time, all of the New Testament, and a large part of the Old, existed in Yapese; the remainder has been completed now).  I said something of the same thing to Richard Flinn, in Auckland, who was to sponsor our setting up the Pukekohe Reformed Church.  He thought that, in principle, this was not an impossible idea.

The function of this story was, in fact, to reassure myself that I was not really abandoning Yapese, only taking time off to start this church in Pukekohe.  An outsider would not have thought much of the idea.

Somewhere in this time - and I am very unclear as to where - Ross had an idea.

Ross bought some land - perhaps 12 hectares or so, I don't remember - near Glenbrook.  Was this before we were committed to moving to Pukekohe?  I think it may have been, and may have been part of the motivating influence for the move.  Ross wanted to build a two-family house on the property.  He and Glenys and their four children would live in one half; Sue and I and our four children would live in the other half.  At one point I put $10,000 into the project (Ross not only completely paid me back when it was clear it would not happen, he paid me interest as well).

Our last six months in Yap are a bit of a blur to me.  I signed a contract with Interactive Applications, as a 'system engineer' (the title was due to the fact that, as a programmer, my speciality was in Assembly language - the language closest to the built-in machine language itself, by contrast to high-level languages, like BASIC or FORTRAN (well, they were high-level at the time :-)).  All of our belongings - quite everything, I think - was packed into six container-sized wooden packing cases made by Yap Public Works for the purpose.  On, I think, 17 May, 1984, the six of us flew on Air Micronesia to Guam.  We spent much of the day there - rented a car with the, to-us, fascinating gimmick of a motorised seat-belt, that whipped around in front of you (but did not fasten itself) when you sat down.  That evening we flew on Air Nauru to Nauru (with a stopover in the airport in Truk, or possibly Ponape - I have forgotten - a stopover made memorable by six-year-old, air-sick, Helen's running down the corridor when the 'plane landed and vomiting on the carpet.  We were two nights in Nauru.  When, on 20 May, 1984 - our 12th wedding anniversary - we were to board the 'plane in Nauru for Auckland (with, again, a stopover - where? - Solomons? Vanuatu? Fiji? - don't remember - we brought our baggage to be checked in - security, at the time, having increased, it was all supposed to be opened and searched - the poor baggage man looked at the refugee-quality stuff, mostly cardboard cartons strapped with tape and tied with cord, and the four children - shook his head and just passed it on through.

We arrived at Auckland International Airport about 10:30PM on one of the first really cold nights of autumn.  I was wearing jandals, shorts and short-sleeved shirt; the rest of us were similarly attired.  Dear Ross and Glenys were there to pick us up.  They drove us to their three-and-a-bit bedroom house in Pukekohe, where they with their own four children lived, found beds for us, somehow, and we were asleep perhaps by 1AM.  The next day was Monday.  Ross drove me to work that morning in Newmarket.

Oregon Beaches

The Oregon beaches have a special place in my memory.  Both my parents spent time there and told us many stories about their summer visits to various locations on the Coast.

My mother's mother. Grandma Stretcher, loved going to Twin Rocks Beach.  Twin Rocks is just a classic Oregon beach - sand dunes, big waves rolling in, beautiful scenery.  I believe that my grandmother paid for our family to spend time there in a rented house for one or two weeks each year. 

It was almost always fun because the house she rented was  big and had a beach view.  We could sit upstairs in the lounge and see the waves roll in from the main windows and outside from the porch.

Something happened one year that changed our experience.  Maybe the reservations got mixed up by the owners - I am not sure - but we didn't get the big house.  We had to stay on the property, further in the back,  in a little two room cabin.  Most of the time it was okay but the last week it rained most of the time and it was horrible.  I can remember my mother trying to keep the door open so that we could get some air into the place. 

We got to know the people who were renting the big house while we were there.  They had kids our age and we visited them when it was raining.  These kids had a HUGE collection of comic books - Donald Duck, Archie and Veronica, Little Lulu - you name it - oh, also romance ones, too. It was amazing.  My parents really discouraged us from reading comic books. We had a few but nothing like these kids. 

Our father drove back to Portland to work during the week and then returned for the weekend.  It was always fun except for the time we were in that cabin.  My mother, father, sister, me and Grandma - not enough room.  I remember things getting very tense - the rain was pelting down, food had been burned, something about a bad stove, no air in the place - you name it.  The worst was my mother's special camera getting stolen while we were at the beach one day. 

I don't remember us going back there again.  But I wasn't too upset because "Family Camp" replaced the summer beach time.

12 January 2013

Time out

"What," I ask myself, "could be even more boring than yet another episode in John Jensen's version of The Perils of Pauline?"

Perhaps a few notes about what Sue and I did (and are doing) over the holidays.

Well, I have an excuse.  Sue is away this week (see below).  By constantly haranguing her, I have got her started on her own memoirs, and we have been doing one each every week-end.  So I can use her absence as an excuse to put mine off until next Saturday.

But I feel guilty not writing something - particularly having written nothing last Saturday! - so ...

Every year, on the second Sunday of January, a commemorative Mass is held at Totara Point on the Hokianga, to celebrate the first Mass there on 13 January, 1838 - and so it will be this year; but Sue and I will not be there.

We have gone every year for the past several years, staying with Dave and Jodi Van Boxel.  This year we could not.  Sue has her annual Opus Dei theology course to attend.  It started yesterday, Friday the 11th January.

Every year, also, Sue flies to Wellington to visit her friend Tina Maroney.  "Why not," I asked, "since we cannot go to the Hokianga, drive to Palmerston North, leave me there at Marko and Rachel's house, and you drive on to Wellington?"

So we did.  Marko Blagojevic worked for several years at the University of Auckland - and he and his wife Rachel became very close friends of me and Susan.  He now works in IT at Massey University.  On Tuesday the 2nd January, we drove down.  Slowing down moderately, Sue pushed me and my bags out of the car, and headed for Wellington.  Massey appears to be a magnet for Auckland University IT people, because another friend, Theang Ly, has just accepted a job (with Marko as his supervisor) there.  The seven of us (including Ly's wife Doreen and their two boys Eric and Jason) had a wonderful time together.  On Monday the 7th, Sue duly showed up at Marko's house, and we drove home - the western route, through Wanganui, Taumarunui, Otorohanga, and Te Kuiti (sneer, you North Americans, with names like Sequim, which they can't even pronounce properly, and Walla Walla, which Susan tells me is the town they liked so much, they named it twice).

I do detest these travelogues, as being the most contemptible form of communication, but I had to write something - really!  Sue is away this week.  I went back to work yesterday, Friday the 11th, and next week will be off on Tuesday and Thursday to deliver her papers.  May she return as planned on Thursday the 17th!  Saturday the 19th should see the resumption of your usual programme.