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A Tradewinds History, Part 9 January 1, 2017

Filed under: Guest Post,Tradewind Knitwear Designs history — codeandknit @ 17:40

A Very Happy (or at least a Not-Bad) 2017 to all of you!  

At the close of the last history blog we left Lucy and her business in need of a website. I was trying to remember the exact year this was, and I think it was 2002 or close to it.

A home for the Lucy website

Some of you may be familiar with the steps involved in ‘getting a website’. Thanks to instant-website providers like WordPress and the like, that whole business has become much simpler than it was on my first try. The fact that we went with the local non-profit community net (a small ISP) certainly did not help, as neither they nor others had the automation tools now available everywhere for installing and administering websites. I had no idea what I was missing, of course.


Who you gonna call?

Of course, the obvious expert to ask about this sort of thing was my teenage son, and he did not disappoint! Having matured into a brilliant computer geek, he knew how to get a website (there were no good and affordable—i.e. very inexpensive—web designers in the city, so at that time, rolling our own was the only way to go). He carefully told me everything that was involved. I listened attentively, and most of it went—accompanied by a soft whoosh—right over my head, but it sounded do-able. “You don’t have a computer.” OK, agreed, that might be be an issue.


Let us step gaily …

My Steps in the acquisition of a desktop computer:

Step 1. Mega-nerd son really wants to upgrade to a faster computer. “Mom, I can set up my old machine for you, so you have a way to get onto the Internet. Remember, you will need a computer to do a website.”
It seemed to me that buying him a new computer, just so I could inherit his no-longer-loved machine, was not a deal of the irresistible kind, so I hesitated to agree. Heck, I could buy myself a new computer instead!

Step 2. “Mom, if you get me a new computer, I’ll help you with all the technical stuff of setting up a website: domain name hosting, webhosting, zone file records, etc. I’ll even write you a script to make it easy to upload your files (web pages) to the webserver.”

Step 3. Off we go… That did it for me: here was all sorts of geek stuff I did not understand, but was totally necessary for the getting of a website… if he would do that for me…

We went out that very day to look at computers and bought a suitable machine for him at his favourite nerd boutique.
Within a couple of days, after he had tweaked the set-up of his new PC to conform to his exacting standards, he set up my desktop in a small sort-of-room off the kitchen. I say sort-of-room, because it really is the thoroughfare from the front of the house to the back of the house, so it is more of a wide hallway with partway-across walls. At the time, I had no idea that this was going to be my permanent office, and no idea that I should have held out for something better: it is not easy to stay focused when the whole family and the dogs are regularly traipsing through. Sigh.


My own desktop computer

I remember sitting down in front of a large (small by current standards) ~50 lb CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor, and a keyboard. I just looked at the machine, unable to grok its computeriness. I knew about computers, and this did not look like one. There was a friendly Windows screen facing me: what does it want me to do?

I had named the computer Pandora, because as far as I was concerned, her box (the case) was probably full of trouble. Thirty five years away from computing left me unable to figure this thing out.


Let me add that I had experienced real computers: in the early 1970’s, I spent several enjoyable years employed as an assembly language programmer at a telephone company. I got to write code for a state-of-the-art IBM System 360 mainframe computer. It had a modern TOS (Tape Operating System) and was housed in its own air-conditioned quarters the size of the Parthenon. It was BIG. In the photo below, you can see some of the huge data tapes and their drives (the phone company had way more tape drives and many peripherals).



IBM System 360 mainframe computer  (at a computer museum)—Photo: Erik Pitti


TLDR:  The good old days of punch cards and core dumps

The telephone company had a stable of ten programmers, all of us housed in an old non-air-conditioned office tastefully set up as a traditional cube farm. Smoking was allowed. I discovered I had asthma when the birth of a baby propelled the great majority of the inmates to light up It’s-a-Girl cigars. Yuck!!!

Except for a couple of us, who managed to teach ourselves the IBM 360 assembly language, the others all wrote in COBOL.  All of us had to write our code on sheets of regular paper. You know, it is absolutely amazing how un-buggy and elegant the code looks on paper! I then took my paper code to the keypunch operator, who typed out each gem-like line onto punchcards. Remember them? Best things for grocery lists ever! If we were unlucky, keypunch errors would compound the bugs we had already neatly handwritten into our code.

The completed program was returned to us as a box of cards, or as an elastic-wrapped bundle of cards, if the program was small. From there I would trot my cards down the block to the next building, up the stairs, and to the big glass doors (locked) of the computer center. A white-jacketed Computer Operator would come by and unlock the door, take my offering, and disappear back into the temple, locking me out again. If things were not super-busy, I might get the test printout back later that same day.

When the program failed (a certainty on the first run), I would receive a core dump instead of the hoped-for successful short printout. A core dump is something wondrous: it is pages and pages and pages of everything that is stored in the computer’s memory. This always made me feel like Sherlock Holmes, as I would work my way diligently through the contents of the registers to see what information each held, leading me to the clues I needed to fix the code. I spent many happy hours this way.

Now that computer memory is reckoned in terabytes and gigabytes instead of kilobytes, nobody prints out core dumps anymore (giggles at the thought).


To be continued…


4 Responses to “A Tradewinds History, Part 9”

  1. vlcox Says:

    Definitely enjoyed reading your post as it brings back many memories for me. I worked in the IT (information technology) department for different companies for over 30 years. Started out as a data entry operator, computer operator, and also did some programming. It seems funny to think that the equipment we worked on is now in museums. Thanks for sharing.

  2. codeandknit Says:

    Yes, I know what you mean. 🙂
    When my children were young (under 10), I had a chance to take them to Boston. We went to the Children’s Museum. We also visited the Computer Museum close by: to my shock and horror, I saw ‘my’ office in one of the displays — including the pile of paper (core dump) on the desk!

  3. k1teach2 Says:

    Oh fascinating! I grew up along with the computer industry. My dad worked for Digital Equipment Corporation from its early days, so I got to see computers from their very clunky early days to the first one you could take home (still pretty clunky by today’s standards) etc.
    Imagine my surprise on visiting the Smithsonian to see one of those PDP-8s as an exhibit!
    And of course, it was DEC president Ken Olsen who infamously said he couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to have a computer in their home.

    • codeandknit Says:

      A DEC guy! That is so cool! When I was doing graduate work the department had a PDP-8, but not to be used by students. I did my data crunching on a hot-off-the-rack Olivetti programmable calculator. It sure made doing the statistics stuff easy.

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