Sunday, April 06, 2008

My history of computers II Almost forgot about this post and its continuation. I'd left off with the Vax machines; this would have been in the mid-late '80s. The PC (I include Apple and others in this) had been around a while, but it hadn't made a whole lot of inroads into academia. Probably because most of the computers at universities were set up and run by the comp sci and engineering departments and they tended to like the far more powerful and complicated minis and mainframes. Plus it was probably more cost effective to buy some big central computers and a bunch of dumb terminals, the better to let loose on the student population.

I always liked the Vax line. I thought VMS was a good OS, not as inscrutable as Unix. But it was a pain to have to go somewhere to use a terminal and then to try to format something to actually print out as a term paper or whatever. I finally broke down and bought my first (actually second, see previous post) PC: A Leading Edge PC/XT:

See the full image here.

Only reason I chose this one was that other people in the department had them. I think it cost like $1400. The screen was probably 10" on the diagonal and was phosphor green, but it also came in amber. It mimicked a typical terminal in display and function. The keyboard was one of those IBM-type things where the key made a physical and aural click when depressed -- still my favorite. Mine had a 30MB hard drive (!!!) and I loaded it with a menuing system.

In truth, this was perhaps my most useful computer ever. I did a simply incredible amount of work on it. I had it during my 2-4th year of grad school so I had loads of papers to write, not to mention lecture notes to prepare. I also had a little Star dot matrix printer and an external 300 baud modem. It was DOS-based and Windows hadn't really become common yet, but I didn't mind since I was comfortable with a command-line interface. For software I used mostly WordPerfect 5.1 (still a classic piece of software). I don't recall using much else. . .I think I had FoxPro for data and a bootleg copy of SPSS. Kind of a moot point since I don't think I paid for any software back then. I used SPSS to analyze my MA thesis data. Lord knows how I ever got it done since it was only like 120 cases and it would take 45 minutes to do a simple clustering routine. So I'd start it, go off and do something else and come back and see what the results were.

There was a small Mac contingent in the department at that time as well. I will admit it: I didn't think much of those first Macs. Silly little monitor with its tiny toy keyboard and users who were obviously just too dumb to be able to use a computer without a "desktop" metaphor. While the OS was indeed way ahead of the curve, I still think it was a lame computer for the other reasons.

By that time, people were still kind of fascinated by the whole "computers in archaeology" idea, but it had started to wane. Archaeologists had been through systems theory which was ideal for computer simulations, but it had fallen out of favor. I tend to think people still had a vague idea that "analyzing the data" using a computer would somehow make the results "better" or "more precise" or let them see something that they couldn't ordinarily. But admittedly it also got more stuff published; anything whiz-bang will get you noticed. So you got a lot of papers published with seemingly complex computational models and technical jargon all aimed at demonstrating complicated nonintuitive hypotheses such as "people tend to live near sources of fresh water".

Really, back then just throwing a bunch of technical jargon together could get you published. Me and a grad school buddy used to make fun of the over-technicalization of archaeological jargon by rephrasing our daily tasks into archaeology-speak. Instead of "going for lunch" we would "devise a resource procurement strategy to maximize our caloric return on investment and then venture into our local catchment area to procure appropriate comestibles".

Yeah, we were geeks, too. But then, you already knew that.

Anyway, back to computers (you know, the subject of this post). If you go to this post you will see the Leading Edge in action, so to speak. I composed all of my preparation for my comps on that computer. Hundreds of pages of notes, outlines, and full answers typed out. Then after the exams, which I wrote out in longhand, I took them all back and transcribed them using the same computer. I also wrote my MA thesis on this.

I schlepped the thing around for several years and finally got rid of it in the 1990s. I gave it to a single-mom friend for her kid to play with. I don't know what happened to it after that, but I think it is probably my favorite old computer. I still have an IBM keyboard with the same clicky feel to it and still think that the soft green monochrome screen is far easier on the eyes than most modern CRTs (LCDs finally overtook them in ease of viewing).

Sometimes I think maybe I ought to go back to using WordPerfect 5.1. It really was something of a marvel. They chose to make an uncomplicated screen, more like you were typing on a clean sheet of paper, which I preferred to the more visually noisy Word format. It realy made you concentrate on what you were actually writing, which becomes something of a major theme for the next installment.